The challenge of feeding science into policy making

Scientists would love it if the public and government accepted their word as the final one. Sadly, as Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), pointed out a session on ‘evidence-based policy and policy-biased evidence’ at ESOF 2010 on 3 July: “public and policy makers’ belief in science is tenuous. People are free to ignore, distort or deny science at will”.

Leshner cites examples from the United States: government efforts to re-introduce religion into schools where the theory of creationism is taught alongside evolution; policy on research on embryonic stem cells; and government policy on climate change, as cases where science is ignored or only a small portion is acknowledged.

European science has fared better in engaging the public and policy makers. But Roland Schenkel, director general of European Commission’s joint research council, says scientific evidence is still not totally independent of political, business and other influences.

One of Europe’s success stories is Sweden’s handling of its nuclear waste. From 2002-2007, the Swedish government did a feasibility study of two candidate sites for disposal of the waste; and ran a national competition for the public to decide on the final repository.

“Lack of engagement with the public has been the key mistake (of the nuclear industry) in the past ,” says Schenkel.

Similarly, European policy makers are willing to fund more research on biofuels to resolve scientific uncertainties about their contribution to climate change mitigation, thanks to close interaction with scientists.

Government decisions are ultimately political and science is just one element under consideration,” says Schenkel. Scientists need to be more proactive in contributing to policy.

Leshner points out scientists’ limitations. Scientists naively believe ‘educating’ the public more about a scientific issue solves the problem. But often the public may be ‘educated’ about an issue but still not like it. India’s Bt brinjal seems a perfect case.

And politicians’ decision are influenced by public perceptions that are often shaped by media coverage. As Leshner sums up: “Politicians are elected, scientists are not”.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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