To influence political decisions, choose your approach wisely

Scientists must push an agenda that is free of ideology and celebrates scientific merit, argues Rick Wilson 

December 11, 2018
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Governments often shy away from fully acknowledging science’s inconvenient truths. This is particularly true around environmental issues. The president of the US has recently condoned the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific advisory mechanism. Nor does the Australian government evidently have much time for climate science, having recently removed an emissions reduction component from its energy policy – despite recent major droughts and the death of large stretches of the Great Barrier Reef.

Social science is arguably even more vulnerable to political attack because it often bears so closely on social policy. It was recently revealed that Australia’s former education minister, Simon Birmingham, vetoed 11 research proposals that the Australian Research Council had recommended for funding – presumably on the grounds that he didn’t like their ideological flavour. And in Hungary, the government has banned gender studies and cracked down on work involving refugees.

In the US, my own discipline of political science has been repeatedly attacked by the US Congress. A few years ago, the political science programme at the National Science Foundation was shut down, postponing and damaging the research of hundreds of scholars. Who knows what could still happen to social science funding under Trump?

Some may scoff that the social sciences are not real science, but just a complex restatement of “common sense”. This ignores the fact that people are the problem and solution to many of the issues confronting nations. No matter the cause of climate change, in the past decade people around the world have experienced increasingly intense storms. What could be a more fundamental issue for policymakers than, for example, to understand when citizens will comply with orders to evacuate, or return to a site stricken by a natural disaster? Social scientists are able to offer advice on such issues that goes well beyond common sense – and ignoring their findings or removing their funding to investigate such issues is not a recipe for adept policymaking.

Politicians face difficult and unavoidable choices when exercising their duty to allocate money. While policy priorities should ideally be decided in a principled way, informed by evidence, it is also true that politicians’ success in democratic systems depends on pandering to their supporters’ beliefs and interests.

However, at the very least, politicians should allow those with specialised knowledge to implement the priorities they decide upon. While I might be able to diagnose that I have a tumour, I am not sufficiently skilled to wield a surgical knife to excise it. I would rather depend on a specialist. Politicians are in the same position. They may recognise a fundamental problem, but they lack the skills to cure it.

Politicians are also ill-prepared to judge scientific merit. Introspection is not enough. Knowledge does not arise in isolation. Scientific disciplines differ in their tools, their measures and their concepts, but each rigorously monitors and enforces their own standards of evidence. It is a community effort involving shared understanding; new findings and insights are contested by reviewers; novel research proposals are scrutinised by panels of scientists. The tug and pull of discussion is always with respect to scientific merit and decisions are not reached by a vote among the participants. Science is not a matter of ideological beliefs.

Hence, it is not enough for politicians to assert that their own beliefs trump the collective judgement of a scientific community.

But, equally, it is not enough for scientists to expect politicians focused on the next election to go out of their way to seek out scientific advice when deciding and enacting policy priorities. Scientists of all stripes need to do a better job of demonstrating that their research is relevant to the fundamental problems of interest to them. We should be better, as a body, at explaining to general citizens – not least our own families – what we have found and why it is important. In my own discipline, for instance, the #WomenAlsoKnowStuff initiative provides excellent spokespeople to explain state-of-the-art research.

We also need to find more ways to boost trust in science by bringing people closer to it. Citizen science initiatives are a good example of how to do this. In my own work, I ask citizens to report flooding “hotspots” in their neighbourhoods to augment street-level flooding models that my team is developing. These efforts help make it more difficult for politicians to get away with claims that science is fostering “fake news”.

But we also need to be careful to address pressing issues in a way that does not put ideologically driven politicians on the defensive. For example, challenging them over the causes of climate change may be counterproductive. Proposing solutions to the effects of climate change may be more constructive. After all, no politicians want to see their voters harmed by a natural disaster.

Seeking such common ground will grab the attention of lawmakers without causing them to instinctively apply an ideological litmus test.

Rick Wilson is Herbert S. Autrey professor of political science and professor of statistics and psychology at Rice University.

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