Returning to a theme I’ve explored before, this excerpt from a 2011 letter to the journal Science says it all. Responding to a letter by Charles Perring, Anantha Duraiappah, Anne Larigauderie, and Harold Mooney, Briggs and Knight write (in 2011) that Perring et al.’s hope for a new Biodiversity platform meant to echo the IPCC
does not address the fact that science policy formation does not depend solely on scientific facts.
In practice, policy is formed through the intermingling of scientific knowledge, political judgment, and practical considerations (1, 2). Establishing an institution to identify information, perform assessments, identify tools, prioritize capacity-building (3), and evaluate policy options will not necessarily provide a “robust … science/policy interface” (4) because the science-policy interface is turbulent (5), not linear (1, 2, 6), and scientific input plays only a small role. The scientific information that policy-makers need derives from policy and political processes, not from scientists’ perceptions. The science-policy interface can be bridged only when scientists understand this policy process and work with policy-makers to reduce political and policy risk, rather than simply providing scientific facts.
This cannot, cannot, cannot be emphasized enough. Better/good science is not “the” answer to better policy. For example, in the following passage I don’t agree with Naomi Oreskes’s relevant point 100%, but I largely do so, and I think her points are very important ones to consider:
Hagerman et al., in an article on forest policy in Canada, quote parts of this conclusion from Oreskes:
Scientists debate unresolved epistemic and methodological issues in their own specialties all the time, but these rarely receive public scrutiny. Lack of consensus becomes a public issue when there is a public stake, which means a moral, political, or economic stake. In such cases, natural science can play a role by providing informed opinions about the plausible consequences of our actions (or inactions), and by monitoring the effects of our choices (Herrick and Sarewitz, 2000). Social science can do the same. But there is no need to wait for proof, no need to demand it, and no basis to expect it.
Hagerman et al., for their part, say
The above observations contrast with expectations of a linear model of science and society. A linear model holds that science provides objective facts, or “truths” delivered to political actors (“power”) to guide policy. In this system, the role of science (here thought of in terms of both uncertainty and evidence) is more accurately described as an indeterminate input given that it has been used both as a barrier and a justification for change. This interpretation fits within the extensive work on the co-production of science and society (e.g., Jasanoff 2004). So, although it may indeed be sobering that decision making does not necessarily act on evidence, the issue of proof and evidence cuts both ways in that policy change relating to ecosystem management can and has occurred amidst great uncertainty.
This, to me, raises interesting questions about the role(s) of applied academic scientists. I think the empirical evidence rigorously establishes that reduction of uncertainty (e.g. Producing “good” science and solid “objective” factual conclusions) does not indeed necessarily push policy change, and indeed, much policy change obviously has, can, and arguably should proceed without full complete “evidence” (e.g. All policy making, but especially, policy-making before Western “Enlightenment” standards of science, which for all its flaws, was sufficient to get us here today, and today, with all our advances, we are arguably battling many of the same problems). If a significant amount of the impetus for policy change comes outside of the provision of “science” per se, does that imply any obligation on concerned applied scientists? Or is it really just to such scientists to stick only or primarily to the role outlined by Oreskes in terms of “informed opinions about the plausible consequences, and monitoring the effects of our choices”? After all, if we are concerned with urgent change, much of those roles as described by Oreskes is reactive, not proactive, and certainly has limited, if real, potential to effect change. And as Nelson & Vucetich have pointed out, agitating for social policies you support is a right, and arguably a responsibility of all citizens; do scientists get a pass on this responsibility, or have a responsibility to separate exercising their rights from their professional comportment? Is all of the process and possibilities of change outside of our fields and labs simply beyond the purview of our work?