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24 February 2017

On the new Policy Forum Pod, John Beddington discusses the state of science in public policy around the world, and what scientists can do to get policymakers listening to the evidence.

On the last podcast we heard from three experts about strategic ways to bridge the gap between science and policy. This time around, former Chief Scientific Adviser of the United Kingdom, Professor Sir John Beddington, discusses many of the real world problems at the heart of the difficult intersection between science and policy, on issues ranging from genetically modified food, to antibiotic resistance, to nuclear radiation. This Policy Forum Pod is produced in partnership with the College of Medicine, Biology & Environment, and the College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences, at The Australian National University. Listen here: http://bit.ly/PFPscience

From 2008 until 2013, Professor Beddington reported directly to the British Prime Minister and was responsible for increasing the scientific capacity across Whitehall by encouraging all major departments of state to recruit a Chief Scientific Adviser. He was awarded a Knighthood in 2010 and in June 2014 received The Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese Government. He is also the Senior Adviser to the Oxford Martin School and Professor of Natural Resource Management at Oxford University.

In his time as Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Beddington dealt with a number of emergencies, including the swine flu epidemic, the volcanic ash incident that closed Eastern Atlantic air space, and the Fukushima nuclear incident. So he knows better than most that the marriage between science and policy can be difficult at the best of times.

“The idea that… we live in a world where the scientific evidence will completely drive policy is nonsense,” Beddington says.

Whether or not science will be taken into account in policy decisions often depends a lot on the individual politicians involved, Beddington says, and highlights Barack Obama as a positive example of a leader respecting the need for scientific input into policy.

“Obama, I think about two years after he went into the White House, said it is really important to take into account scientific evidence, even when it’s inconvenient, in fact especially when it’s inconvenient. Very nice quote, one I tend to use a lot.”

Of course, there are countless examples of where scientific advice is insufficiently heeded by politicians or by society in general. One of the most serious issues facing the world at the moment is antibiotic resistance. To see the extent of the problem, one need only compare the rate of discovery for new antibiotics against the growing antibiotic resistance of common bacteria, Beddington says.

“You can extrapolate the two curves, and you can start to see that some bacteria will be completely immune to all our available antibiotics in time. That will have a dramatic impact on human life… The pre-antibiotic days were ones where [human] longevity was considerably less than it is now.”

Part of the challenge of getting science into policymaking, especially on contentious issues, is making sure the message reaches politicians from the right people. Beddington uses the example of how he asked the United Kingdom Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to help policymakers understand the environmental consequences of fracking.

“They’re pretty trusted bodies, you know, the Royal Society is the second oldest scientific society in the world, and the Royal Academy of Engineering is universally respected. So when you have a body like that coming out with statements which are pretty clear, government will actually do it,” Beddington says.

“You need to be thinking about scientific advice that is trusted by politicians. Well, how do you actually get that? The answer is you’ve got to have been involved with politicians and you’ve quite often proved to be both right and coherent.”

Of course, it’s not just about the source of the message, but also getting the message itself right. Reflecting on his public engagement in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Beddington jokes about his choice of analogy when communicating the risk of radiation affecting neighbouring areas.

“I made a mistake of saying that the even in the reasonable worst case scenario, the amount of radiation that would be hitting the population in greater Tokyo was equivalent to eating about 10 bananas, and I’ve been persecuted by the banana importers ever since.”

So what suggestions does he have for scientists wanting to get politicians listening to the evidence?

“You need to have built up a bit of trust. I think you also need to be focusing on what are the concerns that a politician would have about a particular scientific result,” Beddington says.

“Pick your fights carefully, but also pick the ones that you feel are really important to you.”

Professor Sir John Beddington was in conversation with Policy Forum’s Martyn Pearce. He was a guest at the recent Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy, and The Economics and Science Group event ‘Bridging science, economics and policy silos‘. For more from the speakers of that event, see the following podcast and Policy Forum articles:

Bridging the gap (podcast with Karen Hussey, Kathleen Segerson, and Suzi Kerr)
Honesty and the best policy (Kathleen Segerson)
Researchers are from Mars, policymakers are from Venus (Suzi Kerr)
Turning the tide of water reform (John Williams)
Escaping the ivory tower (Rod Keenan)
Back to the future (Quentin Grafton)
Real leadership can tackle climate challenge (John Hewson)
People the key to better public policy (Bob Cotton)

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