Science, evidence, policy and good government

By - Wayne Linklater 07/02/2013

Since beginning Polit-ecol Science a small number of colleagues have queried me on why I would write a blog that might be political and, to some, contentious. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that they would not do such a thing because it might impact on their chances of career advancement and success at external research funding. Frankly, the implication that parts of our science community might cower from debate and critique on issues that they could inform and that are important to others in our nation’s communities is alarming.

Policy on the environment, informed by ecological science, divides New Zealand’s parliament.

Governments, even in relatively transparent democracies have a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with science and scientists. One cannot claim the mantle of improving the quality and quantity of peoples’ lives in the modern world without co-opting science. It can contribute to political credibility to also periodically ‘roll-out’ your local neighbourhood scientist for public display – might be good for the scientist’s career advancement too. Science and scientists, if they are doing their job however, will also periodically challenge government – science, you see, is fundamentally blind to authority, even if some scientists are not.

We see this tension between science and government in the on-going debate about the quality of New Zealand’s environment and especially freshwater and fisheries. Challenges to government policy on freshwater management by individual scientists, even when the New Zealand Association of Scientists or Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment have delivered the same message, are disputed by representatives and met with inaction. The current government appears hell-bent on under-representing or even ignoring its nation’s scientific evidence when making and applying freshwater policy.

Beliefs about our environment and society motivate and structure government policy. Scientists reduce beliefs down to their simplest tenants and phrase them as hypotheses. The belief that New Zealand’s freshwaters are in good shape can be phrased, for example, as hypotheses about the bacteria in the water or its clarity. Scientists test these hypotheses by mesuring these things. The outcomes are viewed as evidence supporting or not supporting a belief.

In science if the evidence contradicts our belief we change our belief. But this iterative process is not confined to science. Societies which allow belief to be challenged and changed by evidence are more innovative, adaptive and successful societies. Government does not represent or serve its community when it protects its beliefs from evidence.

How should we view government when it pursues policy contrary to scientific evidence, not because they have better evidence or concerns about the quality or quantity of the evidence, but because the evidence does not support their belief? We should view them as sport – professional sport for scientists.

In the Centre for Biodiversity & Restoration Ecology at Victoria University we conduct research in ecological science to inform biodiversity management and policy. I use this blog and social media to engage with people and policy that might be informed by ecological science. Ultimately, the tax payer is my boss – this is where my salary comes from. I am the people’s employee – making the science I do work for ‘the people’. Sometimes that will require that I debate and critique policy. Its my job.

Ecology by the people, biodiversity for the people.