Is Science really informing government policy?

Arianne Weekes.

Most people would agree that government policy should be evidence based, otherwise where do these policies come from? If they are not evidence based then policies may come from the opinions of politicians which are not always held in very high regard by members of the public. The government today is quite proud of its relationship and work with scientists. Professor Beddington who was the government’s chief scientific advisor at the time of this comment said “Whilst we recognise the importance of continuous improvement, the network [between technical/scientific experts and government departments] has never been stronger.”(The Guardian, 29 FEBRUARY 2012)

In order to examine if this is true we can try comparing fairly recent Government decisions to a case from before scientists were known to be involved in much beyond their laboratories.

In a BBC Radio 4 programme How Did We Save the Ozone Layer? (13 NOVEMBER 2016) Helena Merriman stated that CFCs had been in use since early in the 20th century. They were widely used due to their low reactivity, low toxicity and heat absorbing properties. It was known at the time that since they have a long half-life they survive long enough to rise through the atmosphere and up through the ozone layer but it wasn’t known what happened afterwards. When Mario J Molina and Frank Sherwood “Sherry” Rowland discovered that after solar radiation broke down CFCs in the upper atmosphere the resulting chlorine catalytically destroys ozone they published a paper in Nature 249 28 JUNE 1974 and not much happened. Uncommonly for the time, they spread the word outside the scientific community – going to the media and policy makers. The news was picked up by campaigners; even Princess Diana publicly boycotted aerosols. Eventually a hole in the ozone layer was discovered and the campaign was successful to an unprecedented level. A treaty called the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed upon in 1987. It’s still the only treaty to have been ratified by every country.

This result is so topical because recently, about 30 years after the agreement, evidence suggests the ozone layer is repairing itself (SCIENCE 15 JULY 2016: 269-274).

So, after such a massive success for the world thanks to decision makers following scientific advice have things improved on that note?

According to a 2011 report by the Science and Technology Committee Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies the Government does not seek out scientific advice until after events have struck. The committee looked at four case studies: (i) the 2009-10 H1N1 influenza pandemic (swine flu); (ii) the April 2010 volcanic ash disruption; (iii) space weather; and (iv) cyber-attacks. It found that whilst scientists were usually aware and talking about certain dangers in advance, the news didn’t necessarily reach Government until it was sought after due to a crisis.  Space weather is an example where an emergency had not yet occurred but Government response was slow to non-existent. At the 2011 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, scientists warned of effects that could cost the world’s economies £1.2tn. However, the Space weather preparedness strategy wasn’t published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills until 2015, 4 years later, and even then it highlights a lack of awareness in key sectors.

This isn’t the only evidence that suggests the government selectively appreciates scientific input. The government can call on many resources to answer questions it may have. During my time working with the Civil Service I learned about a multidisciplinary team that was commissioned through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (an executive non-departmental public service) to investigate unpredicted cracks that were occurring in the graphite cores of British nuclear reactors. Other countries use different materials so there was no literature on the phenomena before this team studied it. The findings were used to check estimates for the lifetimes of nuclear stations such as Hinckley Point B.

The previous examples suggest the modern government can be trusted to call upon scientific knowledge when it feels it is necessary and to act upon the advice of experts. The government’s former chief drug advisor, Professor David Nutt, had a different experience. The Home Secretary in 2009 asked Nutt to resign as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after the professor publicly opposed the government’s decision to “crack down on all illegal substances” a move that included the reclassification of cannabis, leading to harsher penalties. Nutt had published a paper which claimed that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs. Nutt’s resignation lead to several more and Richard Garside (director of the centre for crime and justice) said he found the paper insightful and that “The home secretary’s action is a bad day for science and a bad day for the cause of evidence-informed policy making.” Both these reactions suggest Nutt had exercised proper scientific rigor and the Home Secretary’s reaction was driven by offense over the public disagreement between scientific advice and government action rather than because Nutt had “damage[d] efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs.” as was stated. (The Guardian, 30 OCT 2009)

The above examples are cases of what happens when science is brought to the attention of policy makers in the first place; the Lord Report Role and function of departmental Chief Scientific Advisers published in 2011 found that expert advice was sometimes blocked, dismissed or not sought early enough to influence decisions. According to gov.uk/government/groups (accessed 18 NOVEMBER 2016) the purpose of Chief Scientific Advisors is, amongst other responsibilities, to “provide advice to ministers” and “discuss and facilitate implementation of policy on science, technology, engineering and mathematics”. If this is what happens to advice from experts hired specifically for the purpose, it’s clear a better working relationship between scientists and decision makers must be fostered. Unfortunately, it looks as if sharing scientific knowledge will become more difficult rather than less so. A 2016 New Scientist article Politicians need to unleash science, not muzzle unwelcome truths expresses concern that a new anti-lobbying measure will “muzzle” scientists. This measure takes the form of the clause “The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.” (gov.uk/government/news accessed 17 NOVEMBER 2016). The clause was originally conceived to prevent charities using government grants to pay for lobbying activities but the clause encompasses all recipients of government grants, new and renewed. It’s meant to still allow free speech since those who receive government grants are still allowed to “influence legislative or regulatory action” as long as they use money sourced in other ways to do so. Still, it spells disaster for UK researchers who rely on public funding. Can and will the new clause be used to avoid unwelcome truths in the form of public funded hard evidence?

Overall, a fairly dismal picture has been painted. The government apparently can’t be trusted to look at evidence it is presented and when it sees the evidence there’s no way to be sure it won’t be dismissed in anything but the most dire circumstances.

This could be due to the way politicians see science. Scientists deal in evidence, correlations and theories; not so-called hard facts. Perhaps policy makers don’t listen because they hear a scientist say ‘theory’ and think ‘they aren’t sure’. Understanding of scientific language and methods could be introduced as a module within politics courses such as Politics, Philosophy and Economics to educate those who will go on to lead the country. However, although none of the last four Prime Ministers have read a scientific subject at university it’s also true that only one of them studied Politics and it’s unrealistic to enforce such a thing across all the humanities.

But politicians are people too. We can look earlier; if science is understood as a method and not a list of memorised facts about the solar system during compulsory education then maybe we can look forward to a country where our politicians know the value of science and are willing to use it as the important tool it is.

 

Is Science really informing government policy?

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