The challenge of feeding science into policy making

July 3, 2010

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

Are science journalists too tame to be watchdogs?

July 3, 2010

The question was: are science journalists too tame to be watchdogs? The verdict was mixed.

Tame watchdogs? Mixed verdict from the panel.

There has been a ‘medialisaton’ of science, with many institutes engaged in public relations and bombarding journalists with well-crafted press releases (OK, that is unusual in the developing world). Plus scientists have now started blogging too.

Add to that the pressures of time, worsened by the demands online media makes of journalists, such as blogs and twitters. So, are science journalists just not digging deep into a story?

As Hans Peter Peters, a researcher at the Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine at the Helmholtz Association in Germany, and adjunct professor of science journalism at the Free University of Berlin, told a session at ESOF 2010, on 3 July, the main goal of science public relations is ‘legitimacy’ or gaining public support for (sometimes controversial) science, rather than to disseminate information.

The pros include helping journalists find information, and helping research organisations survive in a society in which being in the media helps boost a scientist’s career.

But the cons include over-emphasising the immediate practical utility of research, framing scientific advances as organisational output, and focusing on the competitive rather than cooperative nature of science.

Who us? Tame? Don't think so.

Science press relations is both necessary and legitimate, but it must be counterbalanced by strong science journalism,” said Peters. “Strong science journalism will not only be beneficial to the science media and scientific audiences, but also to science itself.”.

Patrick Imhalsy, member of the board of the Swiss science writers association, says it is difficult for science journalists to be really snappish watchdogs, as they lack time.

“We need more time to read scientific papers and not press releases, to understand how science research grows and not just look at the end results, to leave one’s office and go to a laboratory, and above all, to write carefully.”

So what’s your verdict?

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

Science centres – for conflict resolution, cooperation?

July 3, 2010

Can science centres – public facilities such as museums and exhibitions that explain and popularise science among the public – go beyond their technical role and take on more social and political roles?

Three case studies presented by Vincenzo Lipardi, director of Fondazione Idis-Citta della Scienza, at a session on advancing science in developing countries at ESOF 2010 on 3 July highlighted the expanding responsibilities of science centres.

A UNESCO project initiated in 2003 with Lipardi’s foundation and the University of Naples aimed to promote peace and dialogue in the conflict-torn Middle East, by setting up a science centre to promote collaboration in culture, education, research and technological innovation. The centre was set up in the campus of the Palestinian Al-Quds University and supported by the Bloomfield Science Museum and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Andreas and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

In 2004, Lipardi’s team undertook an initiative to set up a science centre in war-torn Baghdad, to make science and technology more accessible to all Iraqis; support the country’s educational system, which was destroyed during the war; and inspire Iraqi youth to take an interest in science.

In 2009, the Nigerian city of Owerri hosted the country’s first festival of science, to promote a scientific culture among Nigerians. There were interactive exhibitions on four themes – electricity and magnetism; energy, light and colour; and sound. Five outdoor workshops showcased issues closely linked to local culture – energy, environment, music, nutrition and health, and chemistry. The project also aimed to bring together politicians and the church.

Lipardi said: “Science centres can work as instruments to bring together differences in terms of culture, religion and life style”.

Amen, as Melchor Sanchez, a fellow panelist from the Vatican, would agree. Sanchez, too, sees a role for science centres in explaining science to theologists.

So that’s a lot on the platter for science centres right now.

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

A mind-boggling variety of issues at ESOF 2010

July 2, 2010

Welcome to the fourth biennial EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) conference in Turin, Italy.

Over the next five days, veteran as well as budding scientists; business people; entrepreneurs and innovators; policy makers; and science and technology communicators will discuss the latest in science and technology and also ways to bridge the gap between science and society and stimulate new science policies.

Their discussions extend beyond European borders to the advancement of science in developing countries and an African observatory for sustainable development. The Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS), one of SciDev.Net’s key supporters, will hold a session on science in Africa.

There will be a mind-boggling range of issues — food security; biotechnology and biodiversity; how to communicate climate change or agricultural research results; how to address governance issues in emerging technologies such as nanotech; and the debate on evidence-based policy and policy-biased evidence.

But there are other science matters that are borderless and that we take for granted in life. Do you, for example, know the origins and mechanisms of humour, and what happens as we grin, giggle or cackle with mirth? Or the exact explanation for some of evolution’s best-known innovations – a giraffe’s neck, an elephant’s trunk or a bat’s wing?

While on borderless science, I am delighted to find keynote speaker Raghavendra Gadagkar, from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, who will explain war and peace among his subjects — bees, wasps and ants.

And watchdogs will be discussed too — specifically, whether science journalists remain watchdogs of society. Are they losing that ability to alert against the misdeeds of science. Woof? I hope and think not. But what is your opinion?

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

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