Science advice to governments

I am delighted to note that the sainted Edzard Ernst, hammer of the quack medicine crowd, used the line in today’s Guardian that I have almost worn out over time when describing the way governments deal with advice on science. As he said, governments use scientific advice like the drunk uses the lamppost – for support, not for illumination.

He’s right, of course, and it’s nice to see this line getting work. However, the House of Lords report on the matter today makes it clear that the problem is not so much government ignoring science advice as governments never receiving it. Major innovations such as ID cards and offshore wind farms were decided upon without scientific advice being sought, even in ministries that had a scientific adviser. In the case of offshore wind, the adviser in question was my crony Brian Collins. Nobody ignores

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Brian. But they might forget to ask him the question in the first place.

Despite these issues, there are cases where governments get it right. One is the ban on smoking in public buildings. This worked because the science was definitive. It is impossible to remove cigarette smoke from a bar without relocating to a wind tunnel. But at the same time, the public mood as changing, and the politicians saw the opportunity.

By contrast, governments know well that smoking and alcohol cause death and suffering far beyond the damage attributable to illegal drugs. The Police Foundation first published research on relative drug harms decades ago, and this is not some wimpy group of drug apologists. The Foresight project on Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs (science writer: me) has repeated the point more recently. But while the public mood accepts booze and cigarettes (the second less and less, admittedly) as part of the British way of life, politicians have too much sense to demonise them. There is, by the way, no point attacking the media about this. Newspapers do not make opinion on this. Instead they

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push the War on Drugs because it chimes with their readers’ existing fears.

Of course, all this gets even worse when we get to the social or human sciences. Education is one field where efforts are now being made to get policy-makers and practitioners to use evidence. But usually, when they think about schools, crime or some other social issue, politicians reckon that their own life experience is all the guidance they need. By

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contrast, you really have to consult an astronomer if you fear the Earth is going to be hit by an asteroid.

This is all very reminiscent of the first time

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Microsoft gave evidence to a congressional hearing in Washington. Afterwards both sides agreed it had been a total waste of time. On one side of the table, politicians who had skipped the physics lessons at school. On the other, IT types who had skipped the

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Will today’s Lords recommendations alter anything? Quite possible, as they are good ideas that deserve to succeed. Government has a lot to learn from the challenge posed by genuine expert knowledge. But as with the smoking ban, a perfect storm in which advice lines up with the political wind will always be the most promising scenario.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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