Lessons from a pro on science-based policy
- 14 Mar 2012, 14:00
- Ros Donald
Professor Sir John Lawton is "very good at piling on the
pressure" when it comes to advocating evidence-based policy
solutions, according to one politician he's dealt with. The last
chair of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution spoke to
Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4's The Life
Scientific yesterday about how scientists can take on advocacy
while maintaining scientific integrity.
Lawton has worked in both scientific research - pioneering the Ecotron, which
allows scientists to observe habitats in controlled conditions -
and as a scientific advisor to government. For example, the
report - before it was abolished due to spending cuts -
examines ways the government can combat strains on waste and water
triggered by increased UK consumption.
In the interview, Lawton makes the case for advocacy from the
scientific community and reveals his own views on how it can be
Be true to the uncertainties
Lawton says he believes scientists have "taken the place of the
theologian as holders of eternal truth". But scientists must not to
buy into that, he adds, saying that failing to express the level of
uncertainty associated with different theories is "a big
That's not to say scientists aren't able to speak out when
scientific processes have led to greater understanding, he
"Science is a process of organised
scepticism where you test ideas to death," he explains, adding:
"The more you've tested an idea the more you can be certain it's an
explanation for how the world works."
One of the biggest challenges scientific policy advisors face is
a lack of understanding about the concepts of uncertainty in
society as a whole - including politicians, he suggests.
This is particularly difficult when politicians have already
decided on a policy but want scientific evidence to support it.
"All they want to do is cherry-pick evidence" to back their chosen
path, Lawton says. This problem doesn't show that these politicians
are bad people, he adds, but it indicates they don't understand the
nature of evidence.
Don't let opinion derail the body of
Misunderstanding of scientific processes is a key problem when it
comes to complex issues such as climate change - where the
existence of uncertainties can lead to the impression there is a
debate raging over the facts of global warming. As we explain here, while
uncertainties abound in many areas of climate science, there is a
substantial amount that we do know about how the climate responds
to elevated levels of CO2 caused by humans.
Lawton makes the point that precisely because science is based on
the repeated testing of ideas - but, he says, that doesn't sit
easily with what he calls the "Radio 4 syndrome" through which
people tend to expect issues to be presented as two opposing
"You can't have an opinion climate
change isn't happening. It is happening - it's not a matter of
opinion, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. I find many
people believe the world is made up of opinions and I find that
"A lot of people on something like
climate change find it hard to understand when a climatologist
comes on TV to say the climate is changing that there isn't someone
expressing an opposing view. In politics you have opposing views -
science isn't like that."
Treading the line between advocacy and science
Some climate scientists - such as NASA's James Hansen - are often
criticised for crossing over from advice on science into the
territory of advocacy.
Asked how to avoid this, Lawton says the only way is by clearly
distinguishing between scientific and policy advice. "I have to be
acutely aware of when I'm explaining the science - which is what a
scientist should do - and when I am suggesting solutions," he says.
As soon as he starts advocating policy, he explains he is speaking
as an "informed citizen".
Of course, policy and science don't always dovetail exactly. In
those situations, Lawton says it's important not to ignore the
"awkward facts you would really rather the minister didn't know".
That's hard of course: "I care, so it's easy to up the ante", he
says, but adds that in those circumstances it's important to pull
back and reiterate the distinction between the science and
Whose job is it anwyay?
Lawton acknowledges there are scientists who believe it's
important not to go anywhere near policy. But he argues:
"If I know what's going on then I am in
at least as good a position as anyone else to think through the
consequences and explain what you could do."
Climate scientists may find themselves in a particularly
difficult and pressured position when it comes to advising on
policy issues. But Lawton's insights from the interface between
science and policy are interesting reading for those contemplating
scientists' role in spelling out the consequences of different