What happens when evidence, uncertainty and politics collide?

The BES Policy Team last night attended the inagural Royal Society Science Policy Centre debate, taking place this year as part of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary festival of science and the arts, ‘See Further’. Lord Krebs, new Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee; Professor David Nutt, Chair of the newly created ‘Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’; Prof. Mike Hulme, Head of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA and Prof. Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University, joined Royal Society President, Lord Rees, on stage at the Southbank Centre to discuss ‘the experimental society’. The event was organised in partnership with the Science and Democracy Network – set up by Prof. Jasanoff to bring together leading thinkers annually to consider major science policy questions.

Speakers were each given five to ten minutes to cover their key points before the floor was opened for questions. A central theme was the role of scientists in providing scientific advice to policy-makers. Lord Krebs was clear that scientific advisors have the job of assessing risk, whilst policy advisors have the role of managing risk. Prof. Jasanoff felt that scientific advisors are those who are able to tell society when an experiment is over; when we have enough evidence to move forwards and the scientific certainty to act, at least until evidence is reassessed. Prof. Jasanoff was also clear that it wasn’t enough for scientists to say that they were trustworthy just by virtue of their position: creating trust in people was fundamentally interlinked with creating trust in knowledge and needed to be cultivated. Prof. Jasanoff contrasted the position of physicians, seen as trustworthy figures by the public due to their adoption of a unique ethical code, with that of scientists. She stated that being more highly cited is not necessarily a mark of being more trustworthy: an interesting point.

Prof. Nutt, controversially dismissed by the Government as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009, was clear that politicians should not stray into making psuedoscientific statements to gain favour with the electorate: politicians should stick to politics and scientists to science.

Prof. Hulme highlighted the UEA ‘climategate’ affair as a mechanism facilitating greater openess and transparency in science. With the aid of the internet, the public can offer new challenges to scientific institutions. Prof. Hulme said that it was valid, in an open society, for the public to make demands for greater openness from scientists. Scientists need to consider how they respond to this. Prof. Hulme suggested that ‘climategate’ and ‘glaciergate’ – controversies over data cited by the IPCC -have unsettled the traditional notion of the expert. Who are the experts in society? Prof. Hulme gave an example of a flood-risk assessment project in Pickering. Citizens have been brought in alongside hydrologists and geomorphologists to construct models of flood risk in the town, based on their understanding of how water has flowed through the town in past flooding events. As a consequence of public involvement, there has been greater public buy-in to the model constructed.