Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, The World

13 August 2019

It’s National Science Week and Australia is celebrating all things science and technology. Science plays an important role in public debate, and to reflect this, Policy Forum is delving into science policy in this special InFocus section. To kick us off, Maya Bhandari looks at the challenges scientists face in the policy-making world.

Although science plays a vital role in policy-making, it receives little attention in policy discussions. When the public is asked about its thoughts on science, its focus latches onto climate change and the need for better climate policy.

Whilst this is undoubtedly a pressing matter, there are many other significant topics in the fields of STEM – or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

So, how can scientists be better represented in the court of public policy? And how can science better inform policy?

To be successful, policies should be rooted in the best scientific evidence available. By pushing for greater diversity, building more effective communication strategies, and understanding the political environment in which policy is made, scientists can be better equipped in the fight for policymakers’ attention.

Firstly, the need for greater diversity.

In April this year, the Australian government launched Advancing Women in STEM – a strategy aimed at increasing gender equity in STEM education and careers. Funding has been allocated in the 2019-20 Budget to continue supporting the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative, as well as a digital awareness initiative. Australia also has selected its first Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

These are steps in the right direction, and the nation will hopefully see an inclusive and diverse STEM workforce in the future.

Of course, we cannot have a conversation about diversity without acknowledging other groups that face a lack of inclusion. Diversity in STEM needs to address not only gender inequality, but also barriers across ethnicity, culture, physical ability, sexuality, and socio-economic backgrounds.

Research shows that teams with greater diversity perform better. Pushing for more diversity in STEM, therefore, may be a sure-fire way to increase the effectiveness of the field.

This is not, however, the only issue in science that needs addressing. When it comes to creating relevant policies, scientists need to be able to communicate effectively with policymakers.

In a Policy Forum article, Anthony Bergin discusses the difficulties scientists face in getting their expertise across to policymakers. He encourages scientists to be bold in their recommendations, engage with industry stakeholders, and deliver their advice in forms that suit multiple audiences – including the public.

But it takes two to tango.

Scientists need to know enough about policy to ask the right questions. In the same vein, policymakers need to know enough about science to ask scientists the right questions.

In a recent Policy Forum Pod episode, Chief Executive of the Australian Academy of Science, Anna-Maria Arabia, pointed out that it’s the responsibility of researchers to communicate the outcome of their work back to taxpayers.

Whilst not all researchers have the skills, or even the desire, to do this, institutions should help them better convey their ideas and findings to others. Institutions, policymakers, and scientists need to work together to translate science into accessible terms to help the policy-making community understand the true meaning of research and the need for evidence-based policy.

Another challenge that both Anthony Bergin and Anna-Maria Arabia recognise is that scientists will never speak with 100 per cent certainty. On the other hand, policymakers and politicians seek certainty and guarantees.

The latter want to know how confident scientists are about their findings. But by not making definitive claims, scientists leave open slivers of opportunity for politicians to sow doubt in the public’s mind. Climate-deniers and anti-vaxxers are prime examples of this.

In the same podcast, former Chief Scientist of Australia, Ian Chubb, emphasised that science is a ‘long-term game’. Policymakers need to move away from attitudes of short-termism perpetuated by the three-year electoral cycle – an aspect of our governmental structure that can be paralysing for policy reform. They must be prepared to invest in the long-term, as the enduring nature of science will always win out.

Policy-making is a complex exercise. Balancing politics, public opinion, budgets, and evidence is no easy feat. But scientific evidence is an important part of the equation and cannot be ignored.

It is vital for scientists and policymakers to listen to each other and form a level of trust and understanding. Fostering diversity in STEM, creating better communication, and understanding the political environment are a few key steps for scientists to ensure that science finds a place in the policy-making puzzle.

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