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Thursday, 5 December 2013

12 Tips for scientists who want to communicate with politicians



Recently Nature has published an article containing twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims, which proposes that most MPs are not able to interpret scientific statements properly (Sutherland et al., 2013). The article was timely and, I believe, just as well targeted at the electorate as their representatives.

In this article, I turn the question around and propose that most scientists lack the skills to communicate their science effectively to politicians and the general public. In this case, what are the 20 things scientists need to know about communicating science to politicians?


The Nature article argues that the “immediate priority is to improve policy makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science” by suggesting 20 statistical and scientific concepts that should be taught to government ministers and public servants”. By contrast, this article suggests that the way scientists deliver information to policy and decision makers is key to having it understood and applied in governing the country.

If, according to Burgman (Guardian, 2013) “politicians, broadly speaking, struggle to critically examine scientific advice” it is also a truism to state that scientists are so immersed in their science that they often fail to take proper account of the broader application of their work where perception is as important as fact.

The bottom line is that scientists train for a very long time to be in the position where they can comment authoritatively on a particular area. Politicians cannot hope to understand the underlying science in such depth and become intimidated. The only solution is for the politician to either find a reliable scientist and to trust her, or to ignore the science completely. Sadly, it is often the latter case which occurs – politicians are not so hot on personal trust.

Unfortunately there are problems with the first approach too. For most politicians to trust a scientist is the same as saying find a scientist with whom you agree, and then the politician has already chosen a scientific advisor that is biased to the politicians view and hence unreliable as an independent source of advice.

It has been said that politics considers science to be either august and reputable or something to be dismissed because it’s done by a bunch of boffins. What we need is a more balanced approach where politicians and scientists make a good team, analysing the facts and probing their broader political implications in order to make the best decisions. This is a view that attenuates political constraints and personal beliefs, while accepting that a perfectly scientific solution is often not sufficiently pragmatic to work in the modern world.

A naïve friend of mine once said that the government should implement an independent body of scientists covering the entire scope of policy making. This scientific civil service would then attach its members to ministers and decision makers as some sort of scientific body-guard. The idea is quite ludicrous, but we need some sort of solution. We are entering a world of Big Data, and there is scope in it for some Big Mistakes unless the analysis is carried out correctly and implications are well understood.

I would say that we already have a scientific civil service. Each and every university academic is part of it. It is our job to inform the policy makers in a clear and concise manner, which they can understand. The list which follows, and which I hope is not too cynical, makes some basic observations that I hope will allow scientists to understand their audience a little better. I urge them to communicate more with their government representatives in order that the importance of science is aired where it matters. There is, in fact, nothing stopping any academic writing a short letter to their MP advising them on the important aspects of their research area that are currently relevant. I would imagine that most MPs would welcome the extra free expert advice!

1.     MPs and Ministers do not read scientific papers. Neither do scientists if the statistics are correct (look at the citation rate for many papers). It is a big world, with big problems and everyone’s time is at a premium. I doubt whether our parliamentary representatives would have the time to read about the current issues of the day even if they knew where quickly to look. It is up to us to deliver short and balanced notes that are easy to digest and that are relevant to the day’s scientific discussion.
2.     Academic science is an under-used resource. They are highly trained and full of ideas – the government should use them. However, it would be useful if they talked more and were understandable when they did.
3.     However, UK Government and Parliament is served by a high quality scientific civil service. The UK has probably the best and certainly the most independent science advice system in the world. Each ministerial department has a chief scientific adviser that reports to the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (who reports to the PM) but also to a Private Secretary, who is in direct contact with the minister. These advisers are experts in their fields. There is a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to give advice to Parliament and extra science advisers attached to the House of Commons Library.
4.     In politics passion trumps reason. No it doesn’t – they exist together. The reason will make something work, but the passion is necessary to ensure that whoever backs it can sell it to others. Politicians to other politicians, and indeed scientists to other scientists. Maybe there is not much difference between them after all.
5.     All politicians are primarily concerned with holding power. And wouldn’t you be. One needs to be in power to be able to get something done, to make a difference, to change things for the better. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sometimes political people are more concerned with the means than the end. ‘Pragmatic’ is the polite term and who is to say that there is not a place for ‘polite’ in ‘politics’. Some are more concerned with the end rather than the means. The polite word this time is ‘dreamer’. Somewhere in between there lies a successful politician: one who knows about people, who is a pragmatic dreamer.
6.     Political reputations are not built on standing up for something whether you believe it or not.  Real life is not an empty debate. All successful politicians have a dream and try to fulfil it. Political success and political reputations are built upon standing up for something you believe in whether others believe it or not. As scientists we should seek out those who are driven by the same passions as they will be more open to expert advice.
7.     Finding political solutions is difficult. The fact of the matter is that improving the lives of the people of our country is difficult. It is never possible to start from square one as any new policy has to be implemented on the back of existing policies and procedures, some of which do not work well at all. This is a truism because if what we have works, what would be the point of replacing it. However, it means that policy implementations are dirty even if they are based on nice clean elegant science.
8.     Social structures are complex. Policies have to work in our existing social structures, and these are incredibly complex. The result is that no policy will improve everyone’s life across the board. Science represents only the seed to making an improvement, but there are the complexities of the social structure and implementation timescales to be taken account of too. Now consider that one small incontrovertible scientific fact, if given too much weight, could jam a whole policy, when ignoring it could make the policy work well on average for most people. Is it any wonder that politicians are wary of scientific facts. True wisdom might lie in the ability to judge which have to be taken account of and which are best ignored.
9.     All evidence can be interpreted. When advising anyone, scientists should be aware that no matter how clear they are, their advice will change as it passes up, down, sideways and diagonally to others. My advice is to ensure that. as a scientist, you do not make a judgement that you are not qualified to give, it is fully justified, it is submitted in writing and you keep a copy safely.
10.  Most of the electorate believe what they know without knowing why they believe it. While I believe it is true that most people have an opinion without supporting it with rigorous delving into the evidence, I have enormous faith in the common sense of the British people: The jury system works with such an engine. Most of the electorate believe what they know without knowing why they believe it – but just think what we could all achieve if we all knew why. Here is a challenge for Michael Gove.
11.  Pragmatism drives policy, compromise implements it. The science that forms the solid foundation to many policies is often hidden by its implementation. That is not necessarily a bad thing – science is the uncomfortable but beautifully formed designer shoe, the implemented policy is the comfy pair that have been worn in. I chose the latter to walk the world in.
12.  Both scientists and politicians live in a world of imagination, one to understand the world and the other to understand the people. Scientists and politicians have more in common than either of them think. They also have more in common with the general public than either of them think, and the sooner they start behaving more like one of the general public rather than something special the better for everyone. I feel that I do more good having a chat in the pub than in a lecture hall – it is rather more congenial too!

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