Science, politics make bad bedfellows
ONE of the defining questions confronting public life is the relationship between science and government policy. Behind virtually every important political issue is a demand made by a scientist “that something must be done”. Policy on reducing obesity, cutting down or increasing immigration, guiding the development of young children, introducing carbon tax - to name a few - all insist that it is “evidence based” and guided by sound science.
With virtually every policy claiming to be based on evidence provided by research it is not surprising that it has become increasingly difficult to delineate the line dividing science from politics.
That is why it is good that Australian astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, recent winner of the Nobel Prize, has drawn attention to the importance of maintaining a clear distinction between the sphere of science and of politics.
He stated that “the science is the science” and “policy is policy”. Schmidt correctly argued that “science should inform policy”. He also criticised politicians who bicker and argue about science instead of focusing on policy outcomes. He was right to assert that it is not the job of politicians to second guess the work of scientists. There are numerous examples of the political manipulation of scientific findings. For example, former American president George Bush sought to prevent important stem-cell research on essentially dogmatic grounds.
However, political interference in science is only one side of the equation. The other, equally pernicious, problem is the use of science to displace political decision making. Whether we like it or not we have gone beyond the age where science and policy exist in a separate world. Scientific research is often policy-led. Most research carried out in universities is funded by government and often needs to take account of its policy priorities. Consequently science too often becomes subject to political influences and commercial pressures. In turn, scientists often use their research to promote their pet causes. They step outside of their laboratory and use their status to influence public life and demand that “something must be done” about problems they have uncovered.
All too often the distinction between science informing policy and science directing it becomes blurred. For their part, policymakers are often willing accomplices to allowing science to acquire such a prominent role. Politicians find it easier to hide behind science and justify their claim by stating “evidence shows” than to engage in the difficult business of convincing the electorate that their policy is right!
The principal motive for embracing evidence-led politics is because science has become a ubiquitous source of authority. Scientific authority has more or less replaced religious, moral and ideological sources of validation. In the 21st century, the only other source of authority available for decision-making is the support of the people. Popular consent represents a powerful source of legitimacy for governments, but experience indicates that winning public support is more complicated than claiming the validation of research. That is why so many policies promoted by governments, for example health promotion, emanate from the work of advocacy science rather than the popular will.