Science and its privilege in the policy arena

Photo by Ian Kelsall
Science is the compass on the voyage we must all make into the 21st century. Photo by Ian Kelsall

By Shaun Hendy

Scientific evidence is held in high regard by New Zealand’s government and its public officials, and frequently plays a significant role in the policy arena. As the late Sir Paul Callaghan said, “‘Science is the compass on the voyage we must all make into the twenty-first century.”

But as government moves to appoint science advisors across its Ministries, it is worth reflecting on why science should be valued so highly. Why should scientific evidence be privileged over other inputs into the policy-making process?

Scientists should stick to the facts,” concluded the Vancouver Sun after an interview with the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, on the role of scientists in policy. Sir Peter has argued that scientists must act as brokers of knowledge – not advocates – when providing advice to policy-makers.

This world-view, one that is held by many scientists, rests on the assumption that science itself is value-free, providing a source of fact that is uncontaminated by society’s prejudice: the value of science stems from its very lack of values.

This view is not universally held. Renowned psychologist Stephen Pinker writes:

Science is committed to two ideals: (1) the world is intelligible; and (2) acquiring knowledge is hard. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests.

The scientific value-system prizes openness, evidence-based debate and acceptance of human fallibility. It is these values, in fact, that make science so useful in the policy process.

If one accepts that science comes with values, then one must also accept that these will not always align with the values of those that employ their services. In Canada, the ability of government scientists to comment openly on scientific issues has been tightly constrained. And closer to home the commercial and political interests of the Crown Research Institutes have not always been reconciled easily with the principles of open debate that underpin the scientific method. In the worst-case, the scientific values that underpin good scientific advice can be undermined or become distorted.

In these circumstances, the portrayal of scientific advice as impartial and free of interests can be problematic. Consider the clash of interests of a government scientist, whose job it is to test water quality, and that of a community that suspects its water supply may be unsafe. The scientist may place greater weight on a test that minimises false positives, especially if they are employed to undertake many such tests. The community would likely prefer that the scientist administer a test that minimises false negatives, to ensure their health is not inadvertently put at risk.

The scientist cannot meet the community’s needs by acting merely as a knowledge broker. The scientist can succeed only through engagement with the community: by helping the community consider a range of evidence, by participating in open dialogue, and by developing an understanding of the interests of all. The philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that science is privileged because it encompasses “tolerance, respect for the opinions of others, a willingness to listen, reliance on persuasion rather than force”. The voices of scientists should be privileged because they bring both the knowledge and the values of science to the policy arena.

Should Hamilton fluoridate its water supply? The science seems clear: the fluoridation of water supplies is a safe and cost effective way for communities to improve dental health. The puzzle for many scientists is why society debates these things at all. Part of the answer lies in confirmation bias: those who are concerned about the modern chemical industry are more likely to seek out studies that are critical of fluoridation, while ignoring those (the majority) that are not. The responsibility of the science advisor here extends well beyond the provision of evidence; the science advisor must also take responsibility for how the community uses the evidence.

Again, the job of the science advisor is not just to deliver the facts, but to engage democratically to assist the community to weigh the full breadth of evidence. They must be prepared to listen to and learn from the community. They must understand the values of the communities they serve. The successful science advisor must be an advocate for scientific values and not simply a broker of fact.

The authority of the scientific voice does not derive from its lack of values, but from the strength of the values on which it is based.

This article was published last month in Public Sector 37:2, 24 (2014).