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Getting science into policy in international development: faults on both sides?

By ucyow3c, on 2 December 2015

pencil-icon Written by Ms Helen Hopkins, Dr Olivia Stevenson and Mr Greg Tinker (OVPR)

These days you are just as likely to hear academics as you are policymakers use terms such as ‘evidence-based’, ‘evidence-informed’, or ‘evidence-led’ policy. Yet barriers to getting science into policy in international development remain.

Professor Christopher Whitty has witnessed this first hand as Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) and Director of Research and Evidence to the Department for International Development (DFID). Now his term has come to a close, he joined us at UCL to reflect on the challenges of the CSA role and to answer the question, ‘How do we increase the uptake of academic research within policy?’

Science in emergencies: the need for speed
The 2015 Nepal earthquake, the 2014 Ebola crisis and Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, all happened while Professor Whitty was DFID CSA. He soon learnt that during emergencies, ministers were keen to listen to scientific advice: action needed to be taken quickly, backed up with solid evidence. Professor Whitty described this as the easy part of his job, as he had a captive audience.

Timing is everything
Scientific evidence is important, but not the only part of a CSA’s role. Professor Whitty illustrated this, describing a half-hour meeting with government ministers, in which he had just three minutes to get across the science. The remainder was made up of logistical enquiries and questions such as, ‘what do you want the government to do?’, ‘what role should the UK play in non-UK development issues?’ and ‘how much will it cost?’

This shows up a major obstacle to the two groups working closely together. While scientists work on research over months or years, politicians often need information to make a decision in days and hours – or even just three minutes! Whitty suggested one way to overcome this is for synthesis to be carried out in advance on potential upcoming issues.

Synthesised research would solve both the supply side – the research is evidenced in the right way – and the demand side – it would provide an immediate answer to the minister’s question. If synthesis is done as a matter of course, it’ll be ready when it’s truly needed.
As a scientist, the resources you need might not be the ones you think
Good academic evidence isn’t enough. According to Prof Whitty, for a scientist to influence policy in government, s/he will need five things:

  • A position. The civil service is very hierarchical and ministers will only take advice from those in senior positions
  • A serious budget. Government interventions cost millions of pounds
    A team of staff working with you.
  • An understanding of the ‘black arts of politics’- “you’ve only got to watch Yes Minister” to gain a sense what this means!
  • A social status – coming to government from academia, your status will start at zero.

To ease the challenges for scientists, Whitty suggests the UK could learn from the US system, which allows academics to move in and out of government more freely. There would be many benefits to Britain, not least that academics would develop a greater appreciation of the policy system and its constraints.

UCL is doing its bit through policy placements, a scheme for UCL researchers to spend time in government departments.

Economics is central – something scientists don’t readily appreciate?
Prof Whitty described how, “the major problems in the world will be solved by science”, but it’s economics that will determine when and how they are solved. The science-driven solutions for development have to be context-sensitive, realistic and crucially, affordable.

Most problems in low- and middle-income countries have many possible solutions but many of them are not affordable. All governments are working with scarce resources and he described the inefficient use of such resources as “immoral”.

Technology is easy to explain to ministers, but it doesn’t solve all problems
Technological interventions, such as genetically modifying crops and developing new vaccines appear to offer an easy win. The challenge for development policy, Professor Whitty suggests is that technologies may be oversold: “no malaria vaccine is going to stop all cases of malaria”.

Scientists must be realistic about the rates of uptake for new technology and put it in context, and with appropriate caveats. And interventions should be subjected to a rigorous economic analysis: ‘how much will the new technology cost and how much money will it save?’

Decisions are on a scale from technical to political, with most in the middle
Political decisions are not derived through science alone. Professor Whitty described decision-making on a spectrum from purely technical questions such as, ‘what are the steps needed to stop malaria in Nigeria?’ to political ones, e.g. ‘should we spend money on malaria prevention or on girls’ education?’

Science can’t help politicians with the purely political questions, but can contribute to technical choices. Of course, the vast majority of conundrums are somewhere in the middle.
‘Idols of the cave’

There is a tendency for people to be dismissive of things that they don’t understand or see their own particular interest in everything. In the context of science and policy, this applies to policymakers and academics alike.

Preventing allegiance to a particular discipline or theory and reducing bias requires a genuine multidisciplinary approach and evidence synthesis. According to Whitty, this is the only way to deliver a truly effective response to a ‘typical’ moderately difficult policy problem in development!

Stereotypes of scientists and politicians
Professor Whitty ended his lecture by suggesting scientists and politicians are each as sceptical of the other: scientists think politicians will be unable to understand their research. Politicians feel academics have no appreciation of the real world implications of their work.
Before the integration of science and policymaking can progress, Prof Whitty believes these stereotypes need to be addressed. Changing public perceptions through science journalism is one way to do this; as Prof Whitty said, “if we could get the whole population more scientifically literate, we’d make a huge difference.”

Professor Whitty’s lecture was co-hosted by UCL Public Policy and UCL Grand Challenge of Global Health. The lecture was chaired by Graeme Reid, UCL Professor of Science and Research Policy.

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