There’s a lovely bit in the Guardian Science podcast this week about some research that’s been done on the laboratory of molecular biology at Cambridge (the one that’s produced more Nobel Prizes than the whole of France). This lab has a very open culture, where people leave their doors opening and routinely drinking tea together. The researchers talk to those they wouldn’t otherwise notice, and as a consequence find new ideas and collaborations.
Sociable scientists are successful scientists. Taking time to have a bit of a chat about your work can reap all sorts of benefits.
Hoping to join in on some chat about science myself, I attended one of the Biochemical Society’s Science Policy Lunchbox events yesterday. The speakers were John Murlis and John Holmes, talking about improving the relationships between scientists and policy-makers. Their talk had a focus on the EU, through some detailed discussion of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) and their dialogue project.
The talk was full of broad bits of solid general advice. Beck Smith or one of her team at the Biochemical Society will blog about it themselves soon, no doubt. The two key points I circled in my notes are:
1) Science-policy interaction is built on trust and relationships between all the people involved. You can’t just tell people what you know, you have to build a relationship so they trust you enough to listen. This itself isn’t news, I circled it mainly because I agree. It was the point I trying to get at with my post ranting about the problems of simply calling for scientific literacy. What was news to me though was…
2) Only 60% of EASAC members send out a press release about their policy reports. Why not all, as a matter of course? I’d be interested to know the quality of that 60% too.
I think that we can easily combine these two points. If more science policy was done in public, I suspect it’d open itself to itself too. One of the interesting things scientists often say about media coverage of their research is not just that it helps them to shares their science with society at large, but that it helps them get noticed (in positive ways) by other scientists. It’s a bit like a slightly diluted version of all those cups of tea at that molecular biology lab in Cambridge. I think this could apply to science policy advice too. The audience isn’t so much an amorphous ‘general public’ (though that’s great too) but actually the same people who really should be paying attention to the report anyway.
NB: I do know some policy issues are sensitive, and so can’t work in public in the same way. However, a lot more could be done to help facilitate greater public discussion of science advice to government which isn’t so sensitive.
I also think policy reports (if well written…) can be very newsworthy, an interesting way of sharing science with the public via the mass media. It’s research that has been applied, it’s made up of socially interesting science rather than work which may well be very important at some point and interesting to some people. You can insert your rant here about dominance of journal publishing on science news, but I suppose I see policy reports as potentially a form of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism (not that research papers can’t be amazing and exciting, just there is more to science). My main suggestion here, however, is that if science policy advice was done more prominently in public, it would be understood, appreciated and trusted more by the politicians too.
Imran Khan wasn’t at the talk, but has been working through similar thoughts in terms of UK policy. He has a great post on the New Scientist’ S-Word Blog arguing, amongst other things, that scientists who advice government need to be given support to make their findings public, including independent press officers. To promote “evidence-based policy”, we need public accountability. I’d completely agree with this, and I’d also add that by doing more of this in public, scientists and politicians would probably find they understood each other better too.
Good for policy, good for science, good for news, good for citizen engagement, good for everyone: issue press releases on policy reports people (and as Khan points out, fund them to do so). Personally, I’d like to see much more developed engagement strategy than just a press release, but it’d be a start.