Calls for the closer integration of science in political decision-making have been commonplace for decades. However, there are serious problems in the application of science to policy — from energy to health and environment to education.
One suggestion to improve matters is to encourage more scientists to get involved in politics. Although laudable, it is unrealistic to expect substantially increased political involvement from scientists. Another proposal is to expand the role of chief scientific advisers, increasing their number, availability and participation in political processes. Neither approach deals with the core problem of scientific ignorance among many who vote in parliaments.
Perhaps we could teach science to politicians? It is an attractive idea, but which busy politician has sufficient time? In practice, policy-makers almost never read scientific papers or books. The research relevant to the topic of the day — for example, mitochondrial replacement, bovine tuberculosis or nuclear-waste disposal — is interpreted for them by advisers or external advocates. And there is rarely, if ever, a beautifully designed double-blind, randomized, replicated, controlled experiment with a large sample size and unambiguous conclusion that tackles the exact policy issue.
In this context, we suggest that the immediate priority is to improve policy-makers' understanding of the imperfect nature of science. The essential skills are to be able to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence. We term these interpretive scientific skills. These skills are more accessible than those required to understand the fundamental science itself, and can form part of the broad skill set of most politicians.
To this end, we suggest 20 concepts that should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists — and anyone else who may have to interact with science or scientists. Politicians with a healthy scepticism of scientific advocates might simply prefer to arm themselves with this critical set of knowledge.
We are not so naive as to believe that improved policy decisions will automatically follow. We are fully aware that scientific judgement itself is value-laden, and that bias and context are integral to how data are collected and interpreted. What we offer is a simple list of ideas that could help decision-makers to parse how evidence can contribute to a decision, and potentially to avoid undue influence by those with vested interests. The harder part — the social acceptability of different policies — remains in the hands of politicians and the broader political process.
Of course, others will have slightly different lists. Our point is that a wider understanding of these 20 concepts by society would be a marked step forward.