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How experts can give better advice to policymakers

By Oli Usher, on 3 July 2015

Sir Mark Walport addresses the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction’s annual conference

Sir Mark Walport addresses the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction’s annual conference

One of the main purposes of government is to manage risks. Key to assessing these risks is scientific and technical expertise. So conversations between academics and policymakers are very important.

Unfortunately these conversations can sometimes be at cross purposes. Fortunately, when framed correctly, and with both sides understanding each other, discussions between policymakers and academics can be hugely fruitful.

This was the argument of Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, in his keynote address to the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction’s annual conference on June 25.

So how should academics talk to policymakers?

One thing they need to understand is that the evidence is only one element out of many that policymakers take into account. Too many scientists have the technocratic mindset that policy can be decided based on scientific and technical principles, and that all that is needed in cases of controversy or confusion is clearer, better evidence.

In reality, Walport says, policy is only ever directly driven by evidence in cases where the evidence is extremely clear and there is an obvious and uncontroversial course of action.

This does actually happen a lot of the time – for instance the decisions taken during the Icelandic ash cloud over what restrictions to place on air traffic.

But with big issues, other factors generally weigh more.

And even where they don’t, evidence is often unclear. The worst thing you can do as an academic who has been approached to help develop government policy – particularly if you are advising on an emergency – is say “give me money and I’ll tell you the answer in five years” (or indeed “you’re asking the wrong question”).

Government, far more than academia, has to tolerate ambiguity or poor-quality evidence, because it does not have the luxury of waiting. Academics offering their advice to government need to understand this difference.

But more important than the quality of evidence they offer, scientists need to understand how their voice is just one among several that policymakers have to take into account, Walport says. Government decisions are like a Venn diagram where policy lies at the intersection of evidence, politics (including values and ideology) and delivery (the practicalities of actually doing it).

And so the questions of “is it deliverable” and “is it politically palatable” are just as important as “does the evidence point towards this decision”.

Fracking is an excellent example of the different perspectives on policy decisions – and also how they sometimes end up talking at cross-purposes, Walport argues. The narrow evidence on the safety of fracking, thanks to a report from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, is quite clear: the report states that when properly conducted, the risks are manageable. The water table can be protected from pollution, methane leaks can be avoided and seismic risks kept to a minimum.

The mistake of a naively technocratic approach is assuming that this means fracking should go ahead.

Opponents of fracking disapprove of the technology for whole range of reasons – for instance they may oppose the continued use of fossil fuels, they may not want drilling in rural areas, or they may be unhappy with the power of big big business. These are legitimate political viewpoints, Walport says, regardless of the scientific evidence.

The opponents of fracking often make a similar mistake to its supporters, though: Walport points to cases in which they have tried to dispute the science, rather than make an argument based on values or practicality.

If experts argue that protestors are wrong, and protesters argue that experts are wrong, then that’s not very helpful. We need to recognise both are contributing to different parts of the debate.

Fortunately there are also examples of good practice, and he points to the recent debate around mitochondrial donation (or “three-parent embryos”). Here, there was clear scientific advice, but also wide moral and ethical debate, leading to a free vote in Parliament for the final decision. There weren’t too many cases of scientists dismissing moral arguments as factually incorrect, nor many of theologians disputing the science.

Ultimately, Walport says, scientific advice is at the service of democracy. The job of the Chief Scientific Advisers across government departments is to provide advice and evidence, typically through identifying experts in academia and business. Their job is not to dictate or lobby a course of action.

In a democracy, it’s our elected representatives who make the decision.


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