Making Public Policy – Science, Policy, Practice

It is very often we hear that policy makers do not understand science and scientists do not know the basics of policy making.

While practicing science needs expert study and training, policy making is a practice – I know I am over-simplifying things a bit here.

Be it the science of genetic modification or climate, policies influence our ability to implement actions. Policies shape the boundaries of scientific action. Thus, policy making is critical for science. But, the experiences of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) indicate the science plays a significant role in shaping policies.

Where does practice come in here? At all levels and in both. Practice informs usefulness of science and impacts of policies. Thus, there is a need to connect science-policy-practice interfaces.

In November 2013, journal Nature published an interesting article titled, ‘Policy- Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims’. The authors list of twenty concepts that will help non-scientists to question the scientists and grasp the limitations of evidence.

Reacting to this, The Guardian published an article that suggests twenty things the scientists should know about policy making. Great points from both the articles but who has time to read, assimilate and implement actions reflecting on these? Not many scientists or policy makers in India.

What I have attempted to do here is to simplify the points, integrate them with the practice component, where both the scientists and policy makers need to know and learn from practice, to complete the loop.

  1. All scientists know how to communicate science

There is a general belief that because science is done by scientists they are best to communicate the impacts. Grossly incorrect! Science communication is an art and scientists need to be trained in this. It is very incorrect to assume a certain Director of an institute knows the art of communication when he drafts and media brief or speaks to the press or public. All our scientists need to be appropriately trained to communicate what they do, why and how it impacts society. In the absence of this, both the scientists and society lose out on the investments being made.

  1. Science administration is best done by scientists

This is yet another misconception. Generally, science administration is different from administering science. Science administrations needs broad understanding of issues, links, transdisciplinary approaches, strategic thinking and appreciation for a broad spectrum of disciplines. Administering branches of science needs just expertise and experience.

Since we do not understand the difference, our institutions tend to appoint the most senior scientists as administrators, compromising their science and institutional ability to grow. However, there are a few exceptions.

Science administration needs more re-jig and a move away from the notion that successful scientists can manage institutions. However, care should be taken to bring in a person with some technical background to administer science. The other extreme of bureaucracy taking over science administration can be suicidal.

  1. Bureaucracy is best placed to make policy decisions

This is a given in many countries. Some countries have wonderfully trained bureaucrats who work close with subject matter specialists to understands the nuances of science and technology in shaping policy decisions. But not many countries can boast of having this rigor and orientation as well as need for engagement of policy makers with scientists.

The struggle the negotiators had to come up with a set of policy recommendations emanating from the recent IPBES regional reports indicate the fine balance that is needed but is often absent.

Those who make policy decisions need to constantly engage with scientists and practitioners to gauge the impact of their actions and policies being set.

  1. Politicians know the best of what people want, and

To a large extent, policies are made having people and society in mind. But often, translating the policies into action is influenced by the politics and politicians who assume the responsibility that they know what is best for their people and constituency, often forgetting that this responsibility can only be short lived.

The rigmarole in India in setting agricultural policies is a testimony to this.

It is not to be argued that the politicians represent the people and their interests but they should engage with both scientists, policy maker and practitioners while deciding on the best ways for action.

  1. Experts provide best solutions mitt omdöme här

This may be true to some extent but not always. If the selection of experts is not balanced and the experts are not connected with people and the society at large, the solutions are best on paper, not necessarily good for implementation.

We need a combination of both experts and non-experts to make suggestions for solutions. This is often given a miss and the at the most, non-experts merely get ‘consulted’ on issues.

For impactful actions, we need the troika to come together and function – the scientists who can communicate, the policy makers who can engage and the practitioners who can inform the potential impacts.

We have a long road to traverse here!


Image credit to –