Analysis: managing the interaction between science's hard facts and policy's opinions and judgements is far from straightforward

The interaction between science and policy has been the subject of study and debate for many years. Plato posed the question of whether rule should be by the most knowledgeable instead of by the majority, President Eisenhower warned against the domination of a scientific-technological elite. The realisation now is that neither science nor politics should dominate in questions of policy but that both must work together.

How this interaction is managed is far from straightforward. The demand for science advice in policy has increased over the past century as the interplay between humans and the natural world has become more complex. Input from different experts, particularly scientists, is essential in order to enable the policy makers make effective decisions in the interests of society as a whole.

The interaction between science and politics is not clear-cut. They are two distinct areas. Science is an external objective authority. It works with hard facts and data. Politics is value laden and subjective. It works with opinions and best judgment.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday with Katie Hannon, Professor Philip Nolan, Chair of NPHET Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group on the roadmap to re-opening Ireland safely

Uncertainty and ambiguity are inherent in science, especially the natural sciences, which are comprised of unpredictable complex systems. Policy makers and legislators seek certainties on which to base their decisions. Scientific research takes time, experiments are repeated, conditions are observed and conclusions drawn. Politics often requires answers within a short deadline, even in non-pandemic times.

In order for decision-makers to be able to make informed and effective decisions, science and politics must transcend these differences and work together. Policymakers must understand the science and conversely, the scientists must provide their data in an accessible form.

Many countries and institutions have developed science advisory bodies so as to facilitate the communication of scientific data to decision-makers. The structure of these bodies vary. They range from officially mandated committees to academic institutions to individual advisors.

During the pandemic, many countries have assembled emergency scientific advisory bodies, such as NPHET in Ireland

They may provide unsolicited policy advice, but more often than not, they are requested to carry out specific research on policy relevant matters. In order to advise specifically on the Covid-19 crisis, many countries have assembled emergency scientific advisory bodies, such as the National Public Health Emergency Team for Covid-19 (NPHET) in Ireland.

The flow of information from the advisory bodies to decision-makers often follows a linear path: the information flows one way from the advisors to the decision-makers. This, however, does not reflect the complexity of the science nor of the policy dynamic.

Multiple types of knowledge are required, with multiple perspectives. In order to effectively respond to policy issues, scientists need to be intrinsically involved in the formulation of legal instruments. This has led to a movement requiring a more collaborative approach to science advice.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Dr Siobhán O'Sullivan, Chief Bioethics Officer with the Department of Health and NPHET member, on Ireland's ethical approach to the vaccine roll-out

This approach is all the more relevant now. As the world becomes more complex, the problems it faces also become more complex. The term wicked problem has been used to describe the policy issues of today. Issues which are not easily defined and have no clear path to resolution. In the sciences, the phrase post-normal science has been used to describe modern science.

A science where facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high and decisions are urgent. The rise of Covid-19 and the uncertainty surrounding how to respond to the disease epitomises these concepts.

While a holistic approach to tackling such issues is required, it has its own drawbacks. In order for scientific data to be of value to politics, it must be independent, transparent and relevant.

The closer the relationship is with the decision makers, the more blurred the line becomes between science and policy

The closer the relationship is with the decision makers, the more blurred the line becomes between science and policy. A perception arises that the scientists are working for the politicians, which negates the value of the scientific advice. It is a delicate balancing act.

The scientists are required to analyse and present data. The results of this analysis can be used to inform action, however, after a certain point the choice moves away from fact and becomes one of policy. How to respond to a situation ultimately requires a value judgment and this judgment is left to politicians.

The holistic approach also recognises the importance of actors other than experts in science and policy matters. Whereas it was once seen as potentially diluting the value of scientific knowledge, input from the public and citizen science is gaining prominence as a valuable source of knowledge.

The term evidence-based policy is often used to describe the relationship between science and policy, whereby science provides the data that supports a policy decision. This term is now evolving towards the term evidence-informed policy which encapsulates the concept that all knowledge is potentially relevant.

The germ of the inclusive approach is evident in the current pandemic. Scientific and medical experts, politicians and the public are all playing a role in combating Covid-19.

There is still some way to go in order to develop a long-term effective science-policy model. Collaborative approaches are easier to achieve in theory than in practice. However, policy decisions cannot be made in isolation and in order to address the wicked problems of our time an innovative and holistic approach is required.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ