( REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom )
The Harper government muzzled scientists. Donald Trump's administration is now doing the same. But a better relationship between science and government is possible. Sir Peter Gluckman is the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. This episode draws on a conversation he had with host Paul Kennedy and a talk he gave organized by Canadian Science Policy Centre, and hosted by the Institute for Science Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. His point: science's proper role is to help decision-makers make scientifically-informed decisions.
Science is in trouble: it's under attack from the outside and elitist on the inside. So what should science be doing?
"Is scientific advice of any value at all? If experts in a
post-trust, post-truth world are marginalised as elites and can't solve
our problems anyhow, do they have any value? In my opinion, scientific
advice in this context is more important than ever...
"The scientific community is not beyond reproach. Science can
get easily caught up in an elitist framing, particularly when
we're arrogant. Because we must admit that science cannot solve every
problem. Nor can we claim that it does. Nor can we claim that we know
better than politicians how to solve the problems of the world.
"I think the issue [is] how you interpret the data. For example, you
could pour a whole of the data into a computer and it might turn out
something like: "where people eat more ice cream, there are more
burglaries" -- to use a silly example. It doesn't mean that ice cream
eating causes people to be naughty and steal things. What it's just
telling you is there's a confounder, and the confounder is on hot days,
people leave their windows open, and where windows are open, burglars
are more likely to enter them.
"I think if we go back to when I was a young scientist -- which was a few decades ago -- I think those scientists [who] appeared in the media were seen to be show ponies. It was disregarded. They lost respect from their colleagues. Now I think we understand that scientists who are good communicators are critical parts of the relationship between science and the rest of society. And that relationship is critical if science is to be well-used by society."
"Scientists especially in the brokerage role need to recognize that in a democracy, policymakers have the right to ignore -- but hopefully not to deny -- the evidence, even if in my view it's unwise and ultimately counterproductive to do so. But the reasons they might ignore the evidence might involve many values-based considerations that scientific knowledge could inform but cannot resolve: political ideology, public opinion, fiscal consequences, diplomatic consequences, etc. The nature of democracy means that there are always multiple trade-offs at play in every decision a government makes, and different stakeholders have very different perspectives."
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