Calls for the closer integration of science in political decision-making have been commonplace for decades. However, there are serious problems in the application of science to policy — from energy to health and environment to education.
One suggestion to improve matters is to encourage more scientists to get involved in politics. Although laudable, it is unrealistic to expect substantially increased political involvement from scientists. Another proposal is to expand the role of chief scientific advisers, increasing their number, availability and participation in political processes. Neither approach deals with the core problem of scientific ignorance among many who vote in parliaments.
Perhaps we could teach science to politicians? It is an attractive idea, but which busy politician has sufficient time? In practice, policy-makers almost never read scientific papers or books. The research relevant to the topic of the day — for example, mitochondrial replacement, bovine tuberculosis or nuclear-waste disposal — is interpreted for them by advisers or external advocates. And there is rarely, if ever, a beautifully designed double-blind, randomized, replicated, controlled experiment with a large sample size and unambiguous conclusion that tackles the exact policy issue.
In this context, we suggest that the immediate priority is to improve policy-makers' understanding of the imperfect nature of science. The essential skills are to be able to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence. We term these interpretive scientific skills. These skills are more accessible than those required to understand the fundamental science itself, and can form part of the broad skill set of most politicians.
To this end, we suggest 20 concepts that should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists — and anyone else who may have to interact with science or scientists. Politicians with a healthy scepticism of scientific advocates might simply prefer to arm themselves with this critical set of knowledge.
We are not so naive as to believe that improved policy decisions will automatically follow. We are fully aware that scientific judgement itself is value-laden, and that bias and context are integral to how data are collected and interpreted. What we offer is a simple list of ideas that could help decision-makers to parse how evidence can contribute to a decision, and potentially to avoid undue influence by those with vested interests. The harder part — the social acceptability of different policies — remains in the hands of politicians and the broader political process.
Of course, others will have slightly different lists. Our point is that a wider understanding of these 20 concepts by society would be a marked step forward.
Click here to read all 20 concepts at Nature News.
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"I have flown twice over Mount St. Helens out on our West Coast. I'm not a scientist and I don't know the figures, but I have a suspicion that that one little mountain has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about." - President Ronald Reagan, 1980 Not quite. Cars emit about 81,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per day, while Mount St. Helens emitted only about 2,000 tons.
"The internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes." -Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), 2006 The "series of tubes" phrase subsequently became a pop cultural catchphrase--it even has its own <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Series_of_tubes" target="_hplink">Wikipedia page</a> and mentioned in the <a href="http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=a series of tubes" target="_hplink">Urban Dictionary</a>.
"And sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." - former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska), 2008 The common fruit fly is one of the most commonly used organisms in genetic research. Discoveries such as sex-linked inheritance and techniques such as gene mapping are a result of such research.
"Information is moving--you know, nightly news is one way, of course, but it's also moving through the blogosphere and through the Internets." - President George W. Bush, 2007 The former president went on to use the word "Internets" two more times in public.
"Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases?" -Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), when asked whether the U.S. climate policy should focus on reducing carbon emissions. Rainforests actually absorb far more carbon dioxide than they emit.
"Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community. It is a hoax. There is no scientific consensus." - Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia), 2009, at a debate over the Clean Energy and Security Act. Many researchers point to a decline in Arctic sea ice, an increase in droughts, and changing rain and snow patterns as signs of climate change.
"What the science says is that temperatures peaked out globally in 1998. So we've gone for 10-plus years where the temperatures have gone down." - Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), 2009 in an interview with conservative radio show host Jay Weber. The mean global temperature has in fact been increasing since 1998.
"Mars is essentially in the same orbit [as Earth]....Mars is somewhat the same distance from the sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe." - Dan Quayle, former vice president, commenting on President George H.W. Bush's Space Exploration Initiative as quoted in <em>This New Ocean</em> by William E. Burrows. Actually, Mars completes an orbital revolution around the sun about every 1.88 Earth years, according to NASA.
"If it's legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." - Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri), 2012 In fact, women can become pregnant from rape.
"All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell." -Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) 2012 Broun, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is a doctor, and would have been taught many of the generally accepted principles of evolution and embryology in medical school.