What Role Should Academics Have in Policy Making?

Ben Whitby.

In the highly academic surrounding of a university it’s not uncommon to hear cynical criticism of government policies, with the blame frequently being placed on the policy makers who are thought of as being self-serving, ignorant and having an inability to comprehend the advice they’re been given by experts. But can we really accept that this is the case? Surely we can’t lump all of those policy makers into one category just as some sort of scapegoat for why things aren’t turning out the way we want them to. This is not to say that work doesn’t need to be done on both sides though. While I’m sure that the level of public speaking training that politicians receive far exceeds that of academics, the idea that scientists can’t articulate themselves verbally is countered by the fact that many of them will have to present their work to large audiences at conferences and other events. I’m sure there are still many who perceive academics as being a similarly homogenous group of people, completely unable to grasp the social elements policy making. In reality academics are subject to the same social influences as everyone else. They still develop the same biases from their environment and upbringing which play a part in the formation of their political views and hence what policies they are likely to favour.

When thinking about policy making it’s important to keep in mind that if there was a policy being proposed that had positive consequences for everybody then it’s likely that it would have no trouble being implemented. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often and in the majority of cases there is always a group of people who will come off worse. So it’s natural for you to want the people who are making these decisions to have a strong moral compass. This is where it can sometimes sound like people from a highly academic background think that they are morally superior to policy makers but, when saying this, seem to forget all the instances of bribery and corruption in the scientific community. There was the case of coca cola funding several British scientists over the course of five years who then came out and questioned the link between sugar and obesity [1]. Another example being when academic Wei-Hock Soon completed many papers claiming that greenhouse gases had no bearing on global warming which were funded for $1.2 billion by the fossil fuel industry [2]. Hence it is not a fair claim that having academics having the final say on policy making, or in this case even advising on policy, will lead to impartial decision making.

To understand the current problems surrounding the intersection between science and policy it’s important to move away from the misconception that all policy makers don’t have a clue about science. This simply isn’t the case. There are plenty of people advising on and making decisions on policy who do have a scientific background and in many cases have vast experience in their given field. Of course this does not mean that they don’t need any advice of experts; The example of plastic microbeads being banned in many countries following studies showing how damaging they are to marine life is a success story of a time when advice was taken [3]. But perhaps it’s time to move beyond the myth that policy makers are unable to approach problems rationally and objectively in the way that us scientists like to think we do. In fact it’s their job to do exactly that. They have to continually weigh up the pros and cons of each argument and make a decision on which one to implement.

This is the point where us scientists like to blame the policy makers’ lack of understanding and ethics when they don’t follow the advice of the academics, but in doing so we fail to appreciate the other factors that are involved in the decision making process. Public opinion is key. A policy to combat one of the most significant challenges we face would be rejected immediately if the public weren’t convinced by it; this is something we have to accept if we want to keep our democracy. An example of this is the public’s perception of climate change. In America, over the past year there has been a significant increase in concern regarding toxic waste and air pollution however the increase in concern surrounding climate change has been significantly less [4]. This lack of urgency from the public can pose a significant hurdle when it comes to implementing a policy to tackle issues such as climate change. This was evident in the 2016 American Presidential debates with the complete lack of questions directed to the candidates regarding climate change, reflecting how low on the public’s agenda this is. Hence we can’t rely on the public to always make the decision that is supported by the strongest scientific evidence.

Hence there is a multitude of other factors that policy makers have to consider, and the sooner we admit this, the sooner we’ll be able to work on ways to help make the changes that we want to see. Even if the view of the academics was taken above everything else and the policy with the greatest scientific benefit was implemented then this would significantly dent that party’s chance of being re-elected if it was against the wishes of the public. Therefore there has to be a balancing act between getting the most beneficial policy in place and keeping the public happy. This is the fundamental role of the policy makers and this is the issue that is overlooked all too often during debates in academic environments about how we can have a greater impact on policy. Hence the white papers that we’re presenting to policy makers should aim to consider all of these social factors as well as the core science and evidence when proposing a solution. Not only will this make us have to rethink our proposals at times to make them more digestible but it will also show the policy makers that consideration has been given to areas other than just the science.

I would say that a discourse on how to improve our engagement with a broader selection of the public is just as important as being able to present arguments to policy makers. The aim of this would be to bring the issues that we care most strongly about higher up the publics agenda meaning that when the policy makers come looking for expert opinions they will be able to get ideas that will be easily digested by the public and therefore have to face one less hurdle before getting implemented into policy. Thankfully public engagement is easier than ever before. From March 2014 to March 2015 the total number of newspaper sales in the UK fell by 7.6% [5], so with the shift away from traditional newspapers to social media, YouTube and blogs it is much easier to get content out there to be seen. Then if the personality is right and the content is presented in an interesting way then it is possible to get your message across to a wide audience. Of course this opens up a whole new range of issues surrounding the spreading of misinformation and biases of different sorts, but nevertheless the opportunity is there for science to seize the chance to become the new driver of public perception and hence policy making.

So while it would certainly be pleasing to see a greater proportion of those with scientific backgrounds go into policy making, I think that a lot of the issues that the relationship between academics and policy makers faces can be eased by trying to engage a broader selection of the public in science while also improving the ways in which ideas are communicated between one another so that the expert advice from the academics along with the decision making and understanding of current policy that policy makers have can be combined to drive the changes that both parties want to see.

References

  1. Retrieved November 19, 2016, from https://www.rt.com/uk/326441-coca-cola-obesity-research/

 

  1. Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://www.techtimes.com/articles/34625/20150222/climate-change-denier-wei-hock-soon-mired-in-controversy-for-receiving-funds-from-fossil-fuel-industry.html

 

  1. Plastic microbeads to be banned by 2017, UK government pledges

Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37263087

 

  1. Gallup, I. (2014, April 4). Americans show low levels of concern on global warming. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/168236/americans-show-low-levels-concern-global-warming.aspx

 

  1. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/apr/10/national-daily-newspapers-lose-more-than-half-a-million-readers-in-past-year
What Role Should Academics Have in Policy Making?

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