What do scientists want from politicians?

By Grant Jacobs 30/10/2011 12

In New Zealand, election madness is upon us.

The various parties are pitching their promises.

What do scientists what from political parties?[1]

To get the conversation going, a few starters are listed below.

I’m not saying these are all sound or that I even endorse these. They’re offered to encourage tongues to waggle or, more accurately, fingers to type into that comment box below in the hope that more practical suggestions than my feeble efforts emerge.

Humourous contributions are welcome too! Serious policy can get too staid… Non-scientists are welcome to offer thoughts, too.

  • An enlarged government science advisory service, tasked to serve all of parliament not the PM’s office. Ideally this could take it’s lead from the British equivalent and serve all the government departs, informing policy while standing independent of any political party. (See also footnote 1.)
  • Strengthening research-to-business links I’ll chicken out and leave suggesting how to achieve this to readers.
  • Increased funding for research and development I’m preaching to the choir here, obviously. In my own defense, politicians do too!
  • Should academic research be dominantly driven via Public Good Science evaluations? A hot potato, but perhaps someone has to raise the topic? No value in pointing fingers without better alternatives, however.
  • Better regulation of ‘alternative’ remedies, practices and their marketing There seems to be movement towards registering practitioners so that they are to carry the responsibility in a similar way to the ‘mainstream’ medical industry, and to increasing the onus on business to demonstrate the worth of their wares before making claims of them. (Some might argue that remedies should be not be offered until their worth is shown.)

Enough from me – bring your suggestions on.


1. This post is in part inspired by floating the concept of a NZ Science Party two years ago now, leading off some something Peter Gluckman in his capacity as Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of NZ presented to the Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. My imaginary party was to ’sit in the house and force the other parties to face the evidence-based aspects of whatever issue was at hand, but with few political agendas beyond that.’

Related articles on Code for life:

When is a scientific paper political campaigning? (This relates to scientific advisories clashing with politicians wishes)

Nutt saga rattles on (more on the above)

Gluckman on science in small countries (originally intended to be a series, I never did find time or sufficient interest to take it further)

Science in the House? (Folate supplementation)

Another R&D stimulation package leaves out the smaller players?

Career paths, redux — the academic research career is the exception

On alternatives to academic careers and ’letting go’

More inclusive re-entry to encourage departure to businesses?

Time for disclaimers on remedies?, ’alternative’ or not

Homeopathy — practical remedies to address it? (Homeopathy is only one form of ‘natural remedy’; what’s thought about it could be applied more widely, where appropriate.)

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

12 Responses to “What do scientists want from politicians?”

  • I like that idea of a NZ Science party – sorry, the idea of a group forcing the others to use evidence based policy rather.

    Ideally what I’d like would require chance from both politician and media. I’ve got no problem with people changing their views as new evidence comes to light, the whole jumping all over people because they change their views needs to end.

    I’d also rather like politicians to not make election promises. Or rather, it’d be grand if instead of saying what policies they were going to implement, they framed what they were going to do as what they were going to find out. i.e. we’re going to test this method of education by doing this and this, and we’re going to test these methods of funding healthcare by running these trials. That sort of thing. Difficult, but I can dream.

  • Having watched politicians on Q+A this morning I would like them to answer questions and be honest – hahaha, just kidding.

    I see the education system as a priority,and I would like to know how much money is spent running the PBRF and whether this could be used directly for research by embracing a simpler system for distributing (research) funding.

  • Ben,

    I like that idea of a NZ Science party – sorry, the idea of a group forcing the others to use evidence based policy rather.

    Part of the concept I had in mind was that by presenting it to all parties, including the journalists following the show, politics as a whole would be held account for the substance (or lack of it) used in forming their policies.

    Or something idealistic like that. I do think that there is a practical middle ground where some of this can be achieved.

    A key point for this to work would be for the advisories to be directly available to all.

    You’d like to think that given tougher times, you’d want policies to be formed on a sound foundation and that more speculative policies are better suited to when the luxury of being wrong can be more readily accommodated.

    Related to your testing notion, perhaps, I’d like to see people put forward the demographics that policies are built to target. It’d help to reveal if they in fact target the groups intended, etc.

  • Michael,

    Having watched politicians on Q+A this morning I would like them to answer questions and be honest – hahaha, just kidding.

    Kidding with that telling grain of truth, right? I didn’t see this morning’s presentations.

    and I would like to know how much money is spent running the PBRF

    It’s a good question. Anyone know?

    and whether this could be used directly for research by embracing a simpler system for distributing (research) funding.

    Something like what was mentioned in this discussion? –


    (e.g. the last comment comparing past and present French grant applications – ?)

  • How much policy can really be subjected to evidence-based testing?
    Whether a policy ‘works’ or not depends on your point of view. Politics is all about tradeoffs: growth versus equality versus the environment; trade versus sovereignty; security versus independence; today’s generation versus future generations, and so on.
    Current issues which no amount of evidence will resolve: capital gains tax; mining in the national parks.
    Issues amenable to analysis: the superannuation age; transport in Auckland. Notice that in these cases we already have lots of information, but it doesn’t mean there is one obvious right answer.

  • kemo sabe,

    I think you mean that for Ben?

    My own thought was offer a means to independently present whatever substantiative material there was relevant to current issues. They key point there was to ensure that the substantiative things are seen and considered – if not by the politicians, by the media (hence the want for open public release, not just advise direct to, and limited to, MPs, etc.)

    While evidence may not resolve can’t everything there will be substantiative material that should be part of considering most issues; I don’t quite agree that the background substance is aired all that well for many issues.

  • A party standing for evidence-based policy is a great idea. I assume they’d also design experiments to determine optimal policy based upon sensible metrics. I’d vote for it. Having been out of NZ for a loong time I’m now struggling to figure out who to support.

  • Paul,

    Nice to see someone likes the concept!

    I have to admit I had hoped for more policy-type ideas.

    Then again, the science community isn’t noted for speaking out – which I think is a bit of a problem in some respects.

  • Jennifer – thanks for pointing the idealog article out. I’ll chase it up. (When I’ve time!)

    After writing my post, I was struck by a the number of people (on other social media) commenting along the same general lines. It feels as if there is a general wish for better presentation and examination of policy.

  • What about a professional code of conduct? Think about lawyers, physicians, et cetera. Second, the media should not be allowed to present fairy tales as if they are facts.

    For both professions we should have some sort of “smoking-kils”-type of warning, i.e. the following statements are not supported by evidence/facts.

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