Talk on Science and Policy, September 17

On September 17, Dr. John Holmes of Oxford University presented a lecture entitled “Making better use of science in environmental policy making: a European perspective”. Dr. Holmes addressed the issue of the gap between scientific knowledge on the one hand and policy decisions on the other. He explored the policy-making process in the United Kingdom, and explained that current objectives are aimed toward facilitating the efficient and reliable dissemination of scientific knowledge into the policy-making arena. These objectives include initiatives and reviews that explore pertinent questions, such as what science is good science (which research is most valid?), how to facilitate exchange between scientists and policy-makers (what is the role of the interpreter?), and how to frame questions that direct practical research (how does a scientist understand a question framed by a policy-maker?). The answers to these questions should help bridge the gap between science and policy. Additionally, Dr. Holmes gave examples of relatively recent policy initiatives in the UK that were directly responsive to scientific discovery (e.g. the implementation of contaminated land regulations; the licensing of water abstractions). Despite this positive note, he concluded that the process of disseminating scientific knowledge and its effective implementation is currently very slow and cumbersome.
I think the essential message to draw from the lecture is that streamlining the implementation of scientific knowledge into policy-making is requisite, for solutions to environmental problems depend on quick action. It is clear that more effort needs to be devoted to making this process quick and efficient. Regardless of what we know from science, if we can’t disseminate the knowledge in a timely manner, that knowledge is useless.
On the other hand, the implementation of knowledge into policy can only be stream-lined to a certain level. The very issues involved in proper, reliable, democratic integration of knowledge into policy-initiatives are what make the process slow and cumbersome. No matter how much we speed up the reliable dissemination of knowledge into the policy sphere, sifting through and debating the implications of that knowledge takes time, and very often, there are a number of interested parties at the bargaining table. To confront this apparently problematic relationship between science and policy, a common ground must be established where policy makers recognize the often serious consequences of slow action and do everything possible to promote timely decision-making, and where scientists accept the reality that democratic decision-making requires time, patience and compromise.

3 Responses to “Talk on Science and Policy, September 17”

  1. crocus says:

    It is indeed important to find ways that science can inform policy and vice versa. Scientists need to stress the importance of policy creation with regards to issues that need immediate action (not more discussion) and policy needs to inform researchers of what information they need before they can implement good policy.

    I do feel however that it is important to make sure that the lines do not get blurred. There may be a danger with policy driving scientific research; it is important to make sure that scientific findings are impartial and not driven by special interests (as can occur when industry or business guide research). It may be less likely to happen in a governmental situation, but the potential needs to be acknowledged. This is not to say that the reverse cannot be true. Science driving policy could lead to an imbalance in the types of policies that are developed.

    Perhaps instead of adding another step (an interpreter) the entire process needs to be simplified and accelerated. Science should provide policy makers with research findings that are succinct and make suggestions on how the larger goal can be enacted in short term instalments (the length of time with which policy works). Policy makers then must dedicate time and energy to gather the relevant stakeholders and work to implement the suggestions. Regardless, scientists and policymakers both need to make themselves available to each other during the entire process for progress to be made.

  2. merle says:

    I agree about the dangers of blurring the lines between the political sphere and the academic one when it comes to imposing research projects and perhaps even a specific methodology to get the desired results.
    But, perhaps paradoxically, I’m also wondering if we do not wrongly presuppose that those two spheres operate completely autonomously and hence that we need to find a way for them to come together. Is the science not already political, especially in its institutionalized form? Is it not, even before we ask the question about explicit and institutionalized dialogue among policy makers and scientists, already a social power struggling with or against other institutionalized forms of social power?