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 physicist Jim 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 commission's final 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 done effectively.

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 mistake".

That's not to say scientists aren't able to speak out when scientific processes have led to greater understanding, he says.

"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 evidence

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 opinions.

"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 very dangerous."

Al-Khalili responds:

"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 advice

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 policy.

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 policy actions.

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