Living with uncertainty

July 15, 2010

As someone who freely dispenses advice, even to government, I am very grateful to Times Higher Education for flagging up the government's chief scientific adviser's Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making (The Week in Higher Education, 8 July). This thoughtful document is really helpful.

One issue, however, presents a challenge to the whole higher education community. Section 12 emphasises that such advice is to be sought in particular when "a wide range of expert opinion exists and/or there is considerable uncertainty".

To promote public confidence, rather than relying on a single authority, departments should gather "evidence from a range of experts or from an expert committee" (Section 29). Furthermore, "the levels of uncertainty should be explicitly identified and communicated directly in plain language to decision-makers" (Section 24). Golly.

How many academic scientists are trained in consensus methods such as the nominal group technique, so that a committee of "experts" with conflicting opinions could map out options for policy in areas with the most concordance? And how many government ministers can digest the statistical concept of "uncertainty", let alone "levels" of it?

As researchers, we need to learn the skill of combining free, scientific debate (thank you, Royal Society) with group processes and shared learning (thank you, Academy of Social Sciences). Uncertainty is another matter. Perhaps among THE readers there is a modern-day Pascal who can explain to ministers how to use reason within gambling?

Woody Caan, Anglia Ruskin University.

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