‘Science is only one lens policymakers look through’

Sir Mark Walport, chief scientific adviser, uses Going Global platform to urge academics to remain impartial when delivering results on ‘pet topics’

June 4, 2015
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One focus, many angles: scientists and politicians must widen their viewpoints

Scientists are too inward-looking and not as “dispassionate” as they should be when they present evidence to government policymakers.

That is the view of Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, who added that academics need to be aware that their “pet topic” is not the only factor for politicians when deciding policy.

Policymakers rarely make decisions based on science alone, but look for evidence and views from a number of sources, he said.

Speaking to delegates on 1 June at Going Global, the British Council’s conference for leaders of international education, Sir Mark said: “It is important for advisers to recognise that if you are a politician, in almost every case you will look through a whole variety of different lenses in order to come up with policies.

“While science may be an extremely important lens through which to look, it is usually by no means the only lens.”

Sir Mark added that sometimes “scientists fail to recognise that”.

“Quite often scientists say politicians need more education in science. Equally I think scientists need education in politics to understand the complexity of being a policymaker.”

Sir Mark said that where science and other policy advice from academics occasionally goes wrong “is when they miss the fact that their pet topic is not the only lens through which politicians look. It’s a really important issue if you’re advising the government.”

Stressing the point that academics must remain impartial when providing evidence, Sir Mark said: “Scientists need to distinguish between presenting the science and when there is a role for advocacy. Scientists are sometimes not as dispassionate as their science points out.”

Asked during the session – titled “Science in the global spotlight” – whether “politicians want to hear the truth”, Sir Mark said: “Yes, they do and they want to hear scientific input. But they also want to hear balanced scientific input.

“So we need evidence reviews, information on what’s unknown, and what might be discovered. It’s my job to recognise [that politicians] will not necessarily make decisions based on science alone. It is rare that science is the only issue.”

Mixing up values and science

Sir Mark added that discussions about science are sometimes confused with discussions about values, but it is “important to distinguish the two” in order to have “the most effective discussions”.

Using the example of the debate on genetically modified organisms, he said: “Some people believe fiddling with nature is fundamentally wrong. But that’s very different from the science of whether a particular GMO is safe to grow in an environment. We tend to confuse the two.”

He said that the “fundamental danger” was that mixing up values and science “stops you having the best discussion”.

“We must recognise that we all have values, values are very important and they are the basis for people making decisions but the great thing about people having plural views is ultimately it is a democratic process. It is about clarity of discussion, not about one type of argument being superior to another.”

ellie.bothwell@tesglobal.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: ‘Science is one of many lenses that politicians must look through’ (4 June 2015)

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