It has been a while since Nature started talking about the undeniable bounder between Science and Policy. The topic came back in fashion due to the world economical crisis: in time of money restrictions, tax-payers demand more from what they are giving, politicians know that and scientists have to snap to attention.

The latest post in Nature News & Comment about this topic explores the results of a team of 50 from scientist and policy-makers reunited at Cambridge (UK) to answer a simple, very very simple question: what is missing between policy and science?

The results of the meeting are published in PLoS ONE (#OpenAccess scores again, after Research Work Act withdraw – check out more here).

The abstract state that the aim of the meeting was to “identifying key unanswered questions on the relationship between science and policy [that] will catalyze and focus research [and money, Ed.] in this field”.

A list of “what-we-should-do-but-we-haven’t-done-yet” came out from a democratic vote to choose the 40 most urgent “unanswered questions“.

Those include some pretty hard-written issues, such as “the effectiveness of science-based decision-making structures”[?!?!?] along with noble points like:

– What an increased transparency in science will lead to?

– How do I choose among different sources of evidence?

– What counts when it comes to “authoritative evidence” and whom decide?

Among the bunch of expert comments, the communicative issues is risen up by Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge – US), that underline that most scientist and politicians remain “blissfully unaware” (my new English expression of the week 🙂 about what we actually do and most importantly what we have already done and we have forgotten. “This is a failure of education, and maybe also of science communication”.

Here we go again. Scientists don’t talk enough to the general audience and importantly to policy-makers. Someone may have been more successful in doing so, and the charity association Invisible Children with their new viral and controversial video on #Kony2012 is a good example. In the good and the bad, this organization spread a clear message that was taken up within few days and drained million of dollars into the Foundation pockets.

Easy. The code is:

communicate strongly = rise money strongly

Politician are so interested in how public money should be spent that the effects of that campaign will not be set aside. Why the scientific community is unable to do the same? I gave myself few explanations:

  1. We are not a compactand uniformed corporation. Each one of us run for its own purpose and along with the University/Institute/Company they are employed in. Inevitable? Maybe, but we are paying more then what we think for this defragmentation, in the same way fast-food chains earn more money then single restaurant.
  2. Regardless the undeniable trust that science gained in these decades, we are still in the lap of media, that decide what is important, what is stupid and what deserve your interest to the point that you should put money into. Fantastic examples are the controversial link between vaccination and autism and the adorable list of opinions that US celebrities give about science every year, to Sense About Science. No matter what they say or how they will say it, it will take 10 scientists to tune down the enthusiasm of the folk for the latest celebrity choice in cancer drugs.
  3. We have internal conflicts that deteriorate our credibility.  The Climate Gate is the perfect example on how exposure to information leaks makes the scientific community an easy target for whoever would like to put us in a corner or spot our flaws.
  4. Science is not a fact, and the discoveries we make are subjected to undeniable stochastic variations. This is very true when it comes to medical research: a result must be repeated over and over from different groups to assess the true and the strength of the outcome and to which extent the results are relevant. In this terms, been careful in what we publish and what we say is the key for accountability but is a clear handicap for communication with a more and more confused general audience, trapped between their higher and higher expectations and our inability to explain science limits. How could I substitute this kind of communication with my mum: “Eureka! We found that the enzyme X kills tumor cells!” with something far more realistic, like: “well, we observed that if I stuff a cell with a not-natural protein it is likely that a quarter of them will die. In a plastic flask. Oh, and these are rat cells.”

Whether these 40 “important question” will be answered, it has to be seen. If we approach the problem from our prospective and we try to put down what can be done immediately to walk towards politicians and the tax-payer, we would find on top of the list something like: “get down your ivory tower and walk down the earth like all of us”.

I will try to remember that.

2 Responses

  1. Let’s just recall a beautiful example of science-common media(Tv, newspapers..)-people interaction.

    Scientists:”Ok guys we did some research and we came to this conclusion:There is a huge chance we might have missed something, or that there was something wrong during the experiment, so we are now going to publish the resoults in order to let other teams help us by doing some other research”
    Headlines:”Neutrinos are faster than light”
    People’s opinion:”NO WAY! Einstein was wrong! That old fool!”

    Scientists:”As predicted, we may have guessed what was wrong with the experiment.Sorry guys, but this is science. We are now going to test alternative methods..
    Headlines:”Light is faster than neutrinos, SCIENCE WAS WRONG”
    People’s opinion:”Those damn scientists! They don’t know nothing mumble mumble blah blah”

    Reality doesn’t sell

    1. You bet it!

      I found on the web a FANTASTIC story of a sort of a scientist that have great influence on US media (still) that was trying to associate some autistic syndromes with Twitter usage. AUTISM AND TWITTER. Do you understand? I failed to find out the reference to this story.
      So gross.
      We should pile a file with all these tales.

      Thank you for commenting 🙂

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