Science and Policy: Exploring the Deeper Reasons for Relationship Breakdown

Gerry Stoker

Prof Gerry Stoker, Professor of Governance & Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance, University of Southampton

Gerry Stoker adds to the ideas captured in the recent blog about University of Southampton-led workshop “Policy & Science: Who defines the problem?”.

That the relationship between science and policy is problematic is not news. Scientists accuse policy-makers of picking and choosing evidence, ignoring what they do not want to hear and caring more about getting elected than doing the right thing. Politicians in turn complain that scientists struggle to give clear answers, fail to understand the timelines of the policy world and always present their findings as a not-so-subtle bid for more research funds. So can scientists and policy makers become better friends?

The secret to repairing the relationship according the consensus of advice on offer has a familiar ring: let’s talk things through. Research funders, learned societies and international advisory organisations say: let’s improve the communication skills of scientists! Let them write more accessibly. Let them blog and tweet. Let them use knowledge brokers to transfer their findings from lab and field to policy. This advice in turn moves on (see the excellent EASAC Guidelines: Good Practice in the Dialogue between Science Academies and Policy Communities) to stress the need for a dialogue between scientists and policy-makers that is relevant to policy making needs, credible because of the quality of the science, legitimate because of the fairness of the structures used to develop it and timely in that it will arrive to the decision-making process to ‘improve the quality of policy decisions for the benefit of society and future generations’. I have no problem with those laudable ambitions!

Yet my judgement in the light of the discussions we had at the workshop is that the relationship between science and policy might be in such a state that a bit of “making friends” through communication and dialogue will fail to make enough of a difference. The issue is not just that science and policy are in different worlds it is also that they are in a complex and problematical relationship. Better communication cannot resolve the competing interests, values, legitimacy claims and power dynamics raised when the colossal of science and evidence meets the empire of politics and policy. We need a new paradigm that can embrace that complexity.
Communication is just one pillar of the more profound and challenging project of shifting the practices and standard operating procedures of both science and policy. We need a new relationship between science and policy and one in which both partners enter with their eyes wide open and with recognition of differences and common ground.

Some of unresolved issues in the challenging relationship between science and policy are:

  • Issues of power and legitimacy that define the partnership: who sets the agenda? Which stakeholders should be involved? Who decides? How is conflict resolved? How can scientists both partner with policy makers and yet keep their distance to maintain their legitimacy and paradoxically their value to policy? How can the relationship be both sustained and sufficiently distance?
  • Clashing calculus systems that muddy exchanges: scientists tend to judge the impact of a policy in the aggregate in terms of its overall impact and generally adopt a similar calculus when looking to come to judgement about the costs and benefits of an intervention. Policy makers, especially elected politicians think more in terms of which interests or voters are most likely to react to a policy change and will they react mildly or strongly, negatively or positively. Knowing that in general society may benefit is not necessarily comforting news for a politician if they also fear that a core constituency of theirs may be mortally offended. Equally scientists tend to talk about uncertainty and risk in terms of a judgement about the quality of their models and science. While politicians talk about it as humans. In doing so may be prone to making technical miscalculations ( in the Daniel Kahneman sense of doing more fast thinking than slow thinking about the issue ) but in their world intuitive insights count, not least because those same insights that are likely to drive the judgements of voters and citizens.
  • The reality that research evidence tends to a narrow validity but policy problems are wicked and wide: How can research offer a more rounded approach touching on both relevant science and social science issues and answering the range of questions that are present in any policy decision? Answering one question well with evidence can often leave policy makers with other questions unaddressed by evidence. How can those gaps be predicted and then addressed? Can science move on from demonstration of the feasibility of an idea to proof of concept drawing on links with practice?
  • A long-term horizon is a default in science but a rarity in policy-making: to talk of producing timely research to feed into policy making implies that it is just a matter of choice but the position is that the fundamental temporal rhythms of science and politics are different. Science, notwithstanding the pressures of regular assessment cycles, tends to have a horizon that is long-term. Its practice rests on building and accumulating knowledge. Policy-making is driven by immovable decision points: elections, budgets, contract-letting, manifestos, legislative programme announcements and international agreements. It’s not that politicians can’t think long-term but their world forces decisions even in circumstances when the evidence is unclear and disputed. Long-term policy commitments can be made but in a democracy the opportunity to revisit a decision is an essential right. Policy making is a world of temporary settlements rather than accumulated knowledge.

Scientists and policy makers haven’t just fallen out through neglecting their relationship. The problems run deeper and are not going to be addressed by bit of communication therapy. We need a paradigm that frames the issues in the relationship in a more complex way. And having understood the issues better we need to turn to the harder still task of how to change things. What practices need to change among both scientists and policymakers? How could institutions and incentives support change? How can we shift the political economy of research to make it both rigorous and relevant?

This post can also be found at Public Policy@Southampton.

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