Science and its privilege in the policy arena

By Shaun Hendy 25/08/2014 5


Scientific evidence is held in high regard by New Zealand’s government and its public officials, and frequently plays a significant role in the policy arena. As the late Sir Paul Callaghan said, “‘Science is the compass on the voyage we must all make into the twenty-first century.” But as government moves to appoint science advisors across its Ministries, it is worth reflecting on why science should be valued so highly. Why should scientific evidence be privileged over other inputs into the policy-making process?

Scientists should stick to the facts,” concluded the Vancouver Sun after an interview with the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, on the role of scientists in policy. Sir Peter has argued that scientists must act as brokers of knowledge – not advocates – when providing advice to policy-makers. This world-view, one that is held by many scientists, rests on the assumption that science itself is value-free, providing a source of fact that is uncontaminated by society’s prejudice: the value of science stems from its very lack of values.

This view is not universally held. Renowned psychologist Stephen Pinker writes:

Science is committed to two ideals: (1) the world is intelligible; and (2) acquiring knowledge is hard. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests.

The scientific value-system prizes openness, evidence-based debate and acceptance of human fallibility. It is these values, in fact, that make science so useful in the policy process.

If one accepts that science comes with values, then one must also accept that these will not always align with the values of those that employ their services. In Canada, the ability of government scientists to comment openly on scientific issues has been tightly constrained. And closer to home the commercial and political interests of the Crown Research Institutes have not always been reconciled easily with the principles of open debate that underpin the scientific method. In the worst-case, the scientific values that underpin good scientific advice can be undermined or become distorted.

In these circumstances, the portrayal of scientific advice as impartial and free of interests can be problematic. Consider the clash of interests of a government scientist, whose job it is to test water quality, and that of a community that suspects its water supply may be unsafe. The scientist may place greater weight on a test that minimises false positives, especially if they are employed to undertake many such tests. The community would likely prefer that the scientist administer a test that minimises false negatives, to ensure their health is not inadvertently put at risk.

The scientist cannot meet the community’s needs by acting merely as a knowledge broker. The scientist can succeed only through engagement with the community: by helping the community consider a range of evidence, by participating in open dialogue, and by developing an understanding of the interests of all. The philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that science is privileged because it encompasses “tolerance, respect for the opinions of others, a willingness to listen, reliance on persuasion rather than force”. The voices of scientists should be privileged because they bring both the knowledge and the values of science to the policy arena.

Should Hamilton fluoridate its water supply? The science seems clear: the fluoridation of water supplies is a safe and cost effective way for communities to improve dental health. The puzzle for many scientists is why society debates these things at all. Part of the answer lies in confirmation bias: those who are concerned about the modern chemical industry are more likely to seek out studies that are critical of fluoridation, while ignoring those (the majority) that are not. The responsibility of the science advisor here extends well beyond the provision of evidence; the science advisor must also take responsibility for how the community uses the evidence.

Again, the job of the science advisor is not just to deliver the facts, but to engage democratically to assist the community to weigh the full breadth of evidence. They must be prepared to listen to and learn from the community. They must understand the values of the communities they serve. The successful science advisor must be an advocate for scientific values and not simply a broker of fact.

The authority of the scientific voice does not derive from its lack of values, but from the strength of the values on which it is based.

This article was published last month in Public Sector 37:2, 24 (2014).


5 Responses to “Science and its privilege in the policy arena”

  • Hi Shaun – the second to last paragraph is dead on, and there are really important points here about the issues with conflicted incentives and the importance of communicating scientific values.

    I’m not convinced about the overall extent. There is a point at which many arguments become ethical or philosophical rather than scientific, and while we as scientists have the right to contribute, we should I think communicate where our evidence-based expertise ends and our less informed opinion starts. Which is difficult and requires humility. Two equally well-informed freshwater scientists could have opposite viewpoints on pollution vs exploitation depending on their values.

    “the science advisor must also take responsibility for how the community uses the evidence” – yeah nah, I think. This is the responsibility of the community (which may include the scientist). The scientist’s responsibility extends as far as assisting with interpretation of the evidence, and probably advocacy for use of evidence, openness etc.

  • Hi Geoff.

    I would argue that the two freshwater scientists both need to be able to make their views known to the public. Right now, we are not hearing from some of scientists whose science is involved in freshwater standards, so we don’t know what their views are on the use of their work. I think this is harmful.

    There have been instances where government departments cherry pick scientific results to support their policy recommendations (whether deliberately, or due to a misunderstanding of the science, I am not going to comment!). I would argue that in cases like this where science is being misused the scientists involved have a responsibility to speak up, but current arrangements make this difficult in many cases.

    The Royal Society Code of Ethics is a good guide I think!

  • Yes agree with that Shaun. A bit different to the situation where the scientist starts arguing with a well-informed decision because they don’t like the particular decision. Or puts their own agenda before the science in a consultative process.

    Hopefully that “well-informed decision” is not just hypothetical …

  • When talking about scientists as brokers, I believe Gluckman is channeling Roger Pielke Jr’s “The Honest Broker”. In the book Pielke divides scientists into four categories: pure scientist, science arbiter, issue advocate, and honest broker. The first doesn’t engage with the policy. The second just answers what is explicitly asked, which appears to be close to your definition of broker. The third is obvious. But the fourth, as defined by Pielke, must understand the needs of the situation. I believe it is this category that Gluckman is talking about.

    For a discussion of the role of the freshwater scientist in freshwater policy, <a href="http://sciblogs.co.nz/waiology/2013/03/11/the-role-of-science-and-science-communication-in-setting-environmental-limits/"<this discussion is very useful.

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