Policy and science

Man making speech

An unofficial rule in science seems to be that you do not get involved in politics. Of course, the hierarchical structure of academia is all about politics, but it is not that kind of politics — party politics. Government politics. Messy politics. The kind of politics that involves pesky humanities graduates from elite universities, that involves campaigns and lobbyists. Not the ‘real world’ politics. That does not mean that scientists are not politically engaged: au contraire! You will find many a scientist lamenting the state of local or global politics (in the UK this usually pertains to Brexit), yet there are few scientists that are actively involved in politics or policy from the inside. That should change.

There seems to be a mutual misunderstanding between policymakers and scientists when it comes to policymaking. Scientists seem to be apprehensive about policy and the messy business of government where compromises are necessary, and the cold hard facts don’t always seem to be the most important factor when making decision. On the policy side of the equation, policymakers think science is too slow and scientists are too ignorant about the realities of the real world where that compromises and appealing to a large base are par for the course. It seems like an impossibility to bring these two together, but it’s my belief that the expertise of scientists is, and should be, highly valued in policy, and policy should be at the very least valued by scientists in return.

Scientists are primarily trained in being able to ask the right questions, being curious, critical and evidence-based. At the moment, it seems like government and policy is in dire need of more evidence and critical thinking rather than less, suggesting this is the perfect moment for scientists to take a chance on policy and politics. In the spirit of compromise, for policymakers to accept scientific advice, scientists will need to be less closed off and elitist about their profession (or vocation, if you will) and looking at politics with disdain. Scientists see themselves as seekers of truth and knowledge — as people who are trying to understand the world and make it a better place. Politicians, lobbyists and policymakers, so it goes, are only in it for money, power and influence. This is, however, a gross and unhelpful oversimplification. Policy affects all of us; governing, advising and creating policies for government and opposition, is in many respects not dissimilar to science. It requires evidence and a critical eye. Contrary to what we might initially believe, lots of policymakers and lobbyists do their best to influence government policy for the greater good and not just for their own benefit. That does not negate the fact that we’re living in tumultuous time where politicians pontificate about the public being tired of experts. This is very much the reason that I believe we need more scientists who are passionate about affecting policy and politics.

But to encourage more scientists to take the leap — whether that is to leave academia altogether and work for an NGO or the civil service in a full-time capacity, or simply advising government and policymakers on the side — we need to value the messy domain of politics more. Senior academics ought to encourage young postgraduate students who have an interest in policy and advocacy rather than stifle their interest to branch out. Many funding bodies are already seeing the value of giving postgraduate (PhD) students a taste of government, but we need supervisors to be just as keen for their students to explore public life. Furthermore, senior academics and group leaders could lead by example by participating in governments advisory committees and showing that dabbling in the domain of politics is not a bad thing. On their part, policymakers would do well to stop seeing scientists as out of touch elitists with no understanding of the workings of the real world: scientists ultimately are citizens who live in the real world too! In the end, if we’re going to affect change, and make the lush green Earth we have to share with each other a better place, we’ll have to take a more interdisciplinary approach. Scientists and policymakers need each other: that, in the end, is the only way forward.

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