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Thursday, 14 January 2016

A slippy word

What role should science play in decision making and why?

'Should' is a slippy word. I feel confident that as you read it, in the context of the question above, your understanding will be different from mine. Does it mean 'must' be involved? Does it mean prioritising scientific advice? Does it mean actually being decision makers? And whose 'science' are we talking about?

I 'should' of course take more exercise, and eat healthier food, and drink less alcohol. As humans in society we 'should' be more compassionate, more tolerant, more open-minded, and less constrained by our cultural heritage. Scientists as a group would no doubt feel that they 'should' be heard by decision takers, but so would those for whom religion is important, those who are disadvantaged by poverty, or gender, or skin colour. Decision making is a political activity and politicians are notoriously unwilling to look beyond their medium term self-interest. In fact, to be honest, so are we all. 

And do the public in fact want decision making to be driven by science? A recent IPSOS/Mori poll (https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Infographics/pas-2014-summary-infographic.pdf) suggests that only 55% of those surveyed felt that the benefits of science outweighed any harmful effects. Only 45% felt well informed about science. These findings in an 'advanced' western society, so what price elsewhere?

There is evidence that scientific opinion is heard and understood by politicians, but action is a different matter; procrastination is a more likely outcome unless there is an immediate crisis, with potentially disadvantageous consequences, to be resolved. It seems to me that the best scientists as a whole can expect is that they will be heard as one voice amongst many competing for attention. It is important though to keep shouting or else those many for whom rationality is an unfamiliar concept may win the day.

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