Lessons from the past: science-policy through history – Policy Lunchbox

The role of science in informing policy-making is not a new phenomenon, as the research of Dr William Thomas, Junior Research Fellow at Imperial College London and speaker at yesterday’s Policy Lunchbox, reveals.

There is a long history of various actors working to promote the voice of science in critical government decisions, including key scientific advisors who helped inform some of Winston Churchill’s strategic decisions during World War Two. Analysing how policy decisions were reached and the impacts that implemented measures had can provide valuable context to assess the suitability of a proposed policy in modern times and offer important insights for modern scientists working to influence the policy-making process.

Dr Thomas outlined three main ways in which history can inform current science-policy interactions:

1. Using Data Points
Examining data records can reveal the quantitative impact of policy measures implemented in the past and is one of the simplest ways to assess the likely outcome of policy decisions. For example, policy to promote Research and Development may have measurable impacts on the number of new research facilities built, or the amount of research produced measured by the number of new PhDs and patents.

However, there are drawbacks to this method of analysis; obtaining, seeking out and interpreting historical data specifically in the context of modern policy decisions means making implicit assumptions about the data’s provenance and the patterns it shows. Additionally, simply comparing the impact of past policy decisions and the predicted impacts of present policy decision ignores the issue of what might be the most appropriate policy decision in modern contexts.

Data like this is best used in combination with qualitative records which provide important context.

2. Science-policy history as a morality tale
Throughout science-policy history, there has been discussion over what the role of science and scientists should be in the policy-making process and World War Two (WW2), Dr Thomas stated, is ‘Britain’s Great Morality Tale’ for science-policy, with intense debate taking place between prominent scientists and government ministers over how strong the voice of science should be in influencing policy, who this input should come from and in what form.

C.P. Snow, a respected chemist with important positions within the government, recounts the very different approaches of two influential scientists informing WW2 policy in his book Science and Government. Frederick Lindemann was the government’s leading scientific adviser and provided direct input to policy decisions by working in a small exclusive team to collate statistical data as a basis for Winston Churchill to make rapid judgments on issues such as food rationing.

Also prominent at the time was Sir Henry Tizard, a chemist and inventor, who took a very different – and widely praised – approach to policy development; as chairman of a Committee for the Scientific Study of Air Defence he formulated a successful defence against heavy blitzing by gathering the opinion and expertise of fighter pilots, Air Marshals, radar designers and administrators. This engagement of a variety of actors was a pioneering approach to informing government strategies and policy decisions.

Snow concludes that a ‘scientific overlord’ like Lindemann should ‘never (be) tolerate(d)’ – a statement which still informs debate about how science feeds into political decisions today.

3. History as precedent
The history of the way in which policies have been successfully influenced and enacted in the past can be very useful in informing the enactment of modern policies, providing real example of ideas put into practice rather than relying on the interpretation of isolated data points or policy-makers’ advocations.

The long history of integration of agricultural research and practice, Dr Thomas argued, is a precedent which could be used to inform the integration of science and research in other areas of policy-making.

Agricultural research has always been engaged with issues of agricultural practice. Prior to WW2, this was through county-level connections between farmers, other industries, education and research institutions, and civil services. Following WW2, this approach was formalised by the creation of the Agricultural Improvement Council.

The Council was formed of prominent figures across a range of sectors; professors of agriculture and related subjects, representatives of farmers’ unions, prominent farmers from a number of regions, and the secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (now Defra). This diverse group established dedicated Experimental Stations to test the implementation of policy measures in different regions before they were finalised and set a precedent for collaborative work in policy formation.

The session provided a fascinating insight into an aspect of science-policy perhaps not often considered by those working at the modern science-policy interface, but nevertheless critically important to understanding how best to influence the modern policy-making process.

The presentation slides are available at the Biochemical Society website.

This session was part of the Policy Lunchbox initiative, run jointly by the BES and Biochemical Society. Throughout the year, guest speakers present at a lunchtime session on a range of pertinent issues for an audience of those who work in science policy. To find out more and book your place on the next session, visit: http://www.biochemistry.org/SciencePolicy/Events/PolicyLunchbox.aspx