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The science community’s plaintive cries for policy attention signal a familiar problem that demands new approaches.
SciDev.Net was essentially set up in response to a problematic relationship between governance and science: there were few links between the management of public goods in global development — health and education, for instance — and the learning and opportunities that scientific research and technology can offer.
Our preoccupation with this problem has led to various successes over the years — notably, a news story that helped put science on the political agenda in Madagascar and a story that enabled local media to keep the Peruvian president to account on science and technology.
However, it has also given rise to a particular type of headline — what might be referred to as the plaintive cry of science for policy attention.
We have seen several such examples recently, in stories that feature governance in small island states (Draft text for small island summit ‘lacks science’) and regional development planning (Science and technology ‘ignored’ in the Pacific Plan review).
One such headline is connected with a particularly worrying story: Science struggles to see its place in final drafting of SDGs. It suggests that opportunities for scientists to influence the Sustainable Development Goals are now limited as targets that should be determined by scientific evidence are being left to political expediency — despite some compelling evidence. This is a disappointment for those, such as the International Council for Science, who had been expecting sustained and substantive input.
Interestingly, the story makes clear that the international community regards the science community much like the rest of civil society, which has opportunities to lobby. But scientists have much less capacity for and experience of lobbying as a group.
The truth is that these stories reflect important failings in global governance and need to come to light. However, the familiarity of the issue can seem dishearteningly repetitive for scientists, journalists and readers.
Ignoring the stories is not an option. But to understand what can be done beyond providing objective coverage, SciDev.Net and others need to put more energy into understanding what is at the heart of the challenge of engaging science with development governance.
A big part of the problem is that science is particularly ill-suited for politics. Giving the David Dickson Memorial Lecture last week, Chris Whitty, the chief scientific advisor at the UK Department for International Development, emphasised the difference between the technical professionals who implement policy and the officials who ratify it. Indeed, he said, we see these roles as interchangeable at our peril — who would want a politician to build a bridge?
A more philosophical take was provided in 1992 by the former president of Science for Peace, Anatol Rapoport, who wrote that science’s concern with objectivity and evidence made it impervious to indoctrination, whereas ideology and charisma are the oxygen of political office.
Three views of the challenge
So what to do? There are three ways to look at this challenge.
For the first, let’s return to the SDGs. Earlier this month, Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, was optimistic about science’s potential role in the negotiations. He believed that science could influence the discourse around policy in several ways, not only by looking for citation of evidence in political documents.
For instance, Sachs saw science as providing the framework that underpinned the ‘zero draft’ SDG document, drawing on such concepts as planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene era. He also saw that document as a structural map presenting organising principles for mobilising and allocating scientific input across and within sectors in development. This speaks to the value of looking for various forms of influence.
“The first step then, is to discourage the scientific community from viewing their exclusion as inevitable and insurmountable.”
Nick Ishmael Perkins
At last week’s lecture, Whitty looked more specifically at the political economy within which development policy operates — and this is the second way to examine the science-based policy challenge. He encouraged scientists to build allegiances with economists, observing that most senior civil servants are trained economists. Whitty did not think this would be difficult, particularly with micro-economists, given their shared epistemological concerns, if not language.
Indeed, SciDev.Net’s research has previously signalled this call for more socioeconomic analysis in science stories. And, arguably, an economics module designed for scientists should be a key element of a quality research education, much like disability rights is part of architects’ training. Just like in architecture, if a scientist has this training, it will say something about their ambition and the quality of their education.
Finally, we could learn from the Rose hypothesis, which Whitty referenced. About two decades ago, epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose suggested that cardiovascular disease could be better managed by lowering the mean blood pressure of the general population, rather than focusing only on those with abnormally high pressure.
In the context of science-based policy, this means making the public more science-literate, as opposed to providing high-level access to policymakers for selected scientists. The rationale here is the same as with any other issue: politicians set national agendas, and budgets, according to what they see is exercising voters.
Use every tactic
These three approaches are not mutually exclusive; and they are useful for SciDev.Net and its peers to consider, even if each of them requires a number of steps in order to be delivered.
Complex systems such as the way policy operates in our societies would suggest that, to have impact, the scientific community needs to use every tactic. The complexity also means that no single approach will work everywhere.
The first step then, is to discourage the scientific community from viewing their exclusion as inevitable and insurmountable. Instead, the aim should be to inspire ingenuity and confidence.
We can do this by celebrating the stories where science has made a difference in public decision-making, even if, at first, there appears little to celebrate. And so, this week, read Last-minute UNESCO lobbying brings SDG science success.
Nick Ishmael Perkins is the director of SciDev.Net @Nick_Ishmael