Falling faith in experts doesn’t mean scientists shouldn’t do policy

In an interview with the Times Higher Education Supplement, the new Editor of Science, Jeremy Berg, discusses the issue of public trust in science. Now putting aside my inherent skepticism of people called Jeremy (read Clarkson, Kyle, Hunt & Corbyn) I disagree with some of the reasons he believes trust is falling.

One of the things that drew me to this position…is there’s a crisis in public trust in science. “scientists have been labelled as another special interest group”

When the editor of Science is saying that, you pay attention. It’s one of the most prestigious job in science. But I don’t buy that blame sits with scientists. Working as the intermediary between researchers and policymakers I see scientists that lack nuance, are easily frustrated and can’t to contextualize their research into the political setting. I also work with scientists who are concise, practical and solution focused — a Government’s dream. These are the researchers that are asked to be on government reviews and expert panels.

The difference between these scientists is two fold. Primarily, many scientists simply do not want to communicate wider than their specialty. This doesn’t make them bad scientists; when working with others in their field they will be engaging and interested. But beyond that they don’t see comms as their role. These are Pielke’s ‘Pure Scientists’. Fundamentally those that want to work and apply findings beyond their field are going to be better at it.

But that difference is exacerbated by access to training and resources that develop researchers ability to give policy recommendations. If this comes early in careers, even at undergraduate level, researchers can be more enthused to communicate. Teaching people about policy impact may help them realise it’s something they enjoy. At the moment, this is entirely down to luck, whether your course conveyors and tutors can offer it.

This is where the intermediaries should play a big role. A strong and knowledgeable research council, National Academies and Funders already mediate between scientists and policymakers. They should also be offering greater opportunities for researchers to do so themselves. More experts thinking about the policy implications means a broader and more relevant evidence base. This can only be a good thing.

These groups can educate researchers about the political environment, and mitigate frustration when their ideas aren’t taken forward. Policy is evidence-informed not evidence-based, there’s always political factors that get in the way of even the most grounded research. See Climate Change, Plastics in the Ocean or Badger Culling.

The recent horrendous Childhood Obesity Strategy highlights how even with an amazing evidence base politicians can turn their back. Instead of Berg’s hesitance to have scientists provide policy positions, I’d go the opposite way. Scientists should offer comment on all white and green papers, fully available to the public. The onus should be on Policymakers to explain why they’ve chosen to not follow an evidence informed direction.

Trust is falling across the board, not just in science. Politicians need ways to rebuild their own reputations. A process of broader evidence and transparent checks and balances means politicians have more chance to change their mind. When new, convincing evidence comes to light they can reposition with more freedom. This could mean politicians (that’s you Mr Gove) don’t have to directly criticise experts to buy favour, but work collaboratively to explain process to the public.

Lower trust is partly related to cherry picking of facts and figures from media and politicians. A more transparent process of evidence and explanation would show where the research doesn’t justify the claims. Jeremy Hunt (see Jeremys!) found this with his wildly inaccurate weekend mortality rates claims. Unfortunately a combination of better media skills and parliamentary privilege meant despite several expert institutions criticising him, he’s allowed to continue with misinterpreted evidence.

It’s in these situations scientists are hesitant to expose themselves. Funders, and Councils need to support scientists to expose the differences in research and claims. Science Media Centre do a wonderful job at exactly that. Always presenting the balance of evidence and moderating wild headlines in the papers.

Scientists are still one of the most trusted groups in society, but they struggle when viewed as part of the elite, or ‘establishment’. Well off, often white middle aged men, who can sound like their preaching to the less informed. To tackle this researchers need to be less concerned about travelling to London for the Today programme and spend more effort engaging through their institution at a local level. School and business visits, local media or even open forums in town halls can go a long way to rebuilding trust. Universities can’t be viewed as isolated enclaves in towns. Their contribution to local economies means they are part of the fabric of their location. A more diverse and representative group of academics can give this even greater impact.

“Scientists to some degree, intentionally or otherwise, have been mashing the two together” — Jeremy Berg

So yes I disagree with Jeremy Berg. Researchers have a crucial role to play in policy-making. No one told him that scientists shouldn’t be editors. Why is the skill of selecting papers with impact any different to using research to have impact on policy? No one says dentists shouldn’t tell you how to brush your teeth, or mechanics what’s wrong with your car. With support, training and collaboration experts can inform policy across the board.