Getting science into policy.
This contribution is adapted from the Keynote Address given by Dr Stephen Goldson in Brisbane in November 2013 at the OECD-sponsored conference on 'Science into Policy, improving uptake and adoption of research' and based on the work of the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor in New Zealand. It discusses the growing need for science to inform public policy as demand on resources and public expectations for evidence-informed decision-making have intensified. Without input from research-derived evidence, policy-making processes are vulnerable to intuition, personal beliefs and prevailing dogma. However, it is important to note that policy is not made by science alone, but is augmented by numerous other considerations, including societal values, financial considerations and the political leanings of the Government of the day. Science advice for public policy is no longer simple. The issues for which advice is now sought are the very issues that cause the most public concern due to their complexity and inherent uncertainties. Major public policy questions now require answers in terms of probabilities that arise from inherent scientific uncertainty and greater recognition, complex and nested systems and feedback loops. In short, scientific understanding is not as straightforward as it was once thought to be - and still is by some. The situation is complicated further by the opinion-leading influence of both traditional and social media that tend to play on fears to attract readership. Social media are now also a well-established channel for interest groups to promote their interpretations, which may or may not coincide with a rigorous analysis of the available evidence. While it is self-evident that science alone does not make policy, and that there are important social values-based inputs into the policy process, scientific knowledge production holds a privileged place because of established mechanisms of science that safeguard objectivity to the greatest extent possible: reproducible methods, peer review, reputable publication outlets, etc. When scientists are seen to be developing positions based on values that are not exclusively scientific, they lose their unique position as a source of input for policy. If not for the evidential base they can provide to policy debates, their views would offer no more or less insight than those held by any other members of the public. Scientists must serve the purpose of being honest brokers of knowledge, explicating uncertainties, but not advocating.