A week or so ago Nature published a little essay by New Zealand’s Chief Scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman, with the title ‘Policy: the art of science advice to government’. It is a good piece, and there is not much that I could dispute in what he proposes. He offers ten guidelines, and I’ll just list them. They are self-explanatory.
1. Maintain the trust of many
2. Protect the independence of advice
3. Report to the top
4. Distinguish science for policy from policy for science
5. Expect to inform policy, not make it
6. Give science privilege as an input into policy
7. Recognize the limits of science
8. Act as a broker not an advocate
9. Engage the scientific community
10. Engage the policy community
It would be interesting to hear what our own Chief Scientist thinks about them as guidelines, and my guess is that he would agree that they are useful. What interests me most, however, is what you do when the guidelines intersect. There you are, acting as a broker not an advocate, and your local academy now complains that you are not giving science the sort of privilege it should be having. Or you engage both the scientific and the policy communities, and they set upon each other.
Sir Peter is not really very forthcoming in how he deals with such issues. He does give an account of how he once proposed a measure to add folate (Vitamin B) to flour-based products to help to prevent defects like spin bifida in newborn babies, a recommendation that the government did not accept: in my first media interview as science adviser I was asked how I felt about my advice not being heeded. I pointed out that despite strong scientific evidence to support folate supplementation, a democratic government could not easily ignore overwhelming public concern about the food supply.
The failure here was not political; rather, it was the lack of sustained and effective public engagement by the medical-science community on the role of folate in the diet. As a result, the intervention did not get the social licence necessary to proceed.
The clash here is between people who want a mandatory nationwide response to the problem, and those who, in this case, want us all to be responsible, and if we are pregnant to take Vitamin B. The rest of us don’t need it. The catch is that a woman may not even know that she is pregnant, while the folate needs to be taken from the moment of conception. That leads to the argument that the best way to achieve good outcomes is through mandatory supplementation of flour-based products. The fluoride debate was very similar. Sir Peter may be right, but I am a tad concerned that he expected the medical-science community to take up arms for the cause.
I was of course keen to see what he thought about the ‘climate change’ issue, but it doesn’t get much attention. He talks about ‘post-normal science’, whose issues are urgent and of high public and political concern; the people involved hold strong positions based on their values, and the science is complex, incomplete and uncertain. Diverse meanings and understandings of risks and trade-offs dominate. I would have thought that global warming had to be one of these issues, but the closest he gets in a decent list is add reduction of agricultural greenhouse gases.
He does talk of the dangerous temptation to use science to justify value-based beliefs and a lack of literacy about what science is (a process). For example, much of the debate about climate change is not primarily about the data. Rather, it is about intergenerational economic interests. I would have written that some of the debate is about the scientific argument, some about the data, a lot about the models, and quite a lot about risks and trade-offs. ‘Intergenerational economic interests’ seem to me, anyway, a bit of a sideshow.
And he does say, and every sceptic I know would agree, that exaggerated presentations about the causes of storms and floods can erode the credibility of the underlying argument about global warming. The sceptics would probably add that the underlying argument is not very strong anyway. I wonder how he put the problem to his Prime Minister.
Finally, he sees the policy community as surprisingly sceptical. I wish it were more so. My own awareness of the policy community is that too many of the academics in it (and some become public servants) see the research they are doing or have done is overwhelmingly powerful, and should lead at once to implementation. Having been on the other side, I can see how complex the real world of policy really is, with advice based on research having to take its place in the queue with the status quo, the current political situation of the government, the matter of timing, the budget, competing interests or claims from other parts of government, and deals that have already been struck inside the government of the day.
Nonetheless, it is an essay worth reading. I’ll have to leave it to New Zealanders to say whether nor not Sir Peter has been effective in his role, and if so, the extent to which his guidelines helped him!