In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many world leaders asserted something that seemed sensible – and welcome – to fans of science everywhere: put simply, that they would ‘follow the science’.
But if you step on to a modern university campus, or take a tour through the variety of labs run by the CSIRO, you’re likely to be aware that the modern world of science is not nearly as simple as that glib assertion might portray.
Modern science is complex and diverse. Our research landscape produces a vast array of different forms of knowledge, much of which is difficult to interpret in wider settings. And every day more is produced – building an understanding of the world that outsiders will find ever more complex, specialised, and sadly, more difficult to engage with.
To respond to those world leaders, science doesn’t just offer one simple line of advice. Indeed, it cannot.
To address an issue as complex as the pandemic, we need the insights and ideas of a raft of different disciplines. Virologists, immunologists, public health scientists, sociologists, psychologists, communication experts and political scientists, to cite just a few.
The same, of course, can be said of many of the other key challenges policy advisers face today: finding ways to craft the expertise necessary for sound policy judgements can be a fraught process.
These difficulties may arise because the science is incomplete, uncertain or still evolving as was the case with Covid-19. Or, we may find different scientists in open disagreement about what the facts are. In some cases, we might discern obvious conflicts of interest which help outsiders work out who is more or less trustworthy. But often, things are not that simple.
Experts may reasonably disagree over the efficacy of mask-wearing outdoors because they make different judgements about how to assess efficacy – and not necessarily because of ulterior motives. Countless such examples can be cited.
So while it’s common to speak of a need to ‘bridge the gap’ between the worlds of policy and science, something richer is needed. We believe that what’s needed are the skills and insights to talk back and forth across the landscape of evidence and action, allowing policy advisers and discipline-based experts to ask the right questions of each other.
Such work might involve returning to the policy problem at stake and asking if, in light of new expertise, it’s been framed appropriately. It could involve asking what types of evidence are needed and when. It might also involve figuring out the limitations of specialist evidence, and the contexts in which particular claims to knowledge might or might not apply. This can’t be done overnight.
In short, before the next crisis is upon us, we need to build capacity in our collective ability to recognise and weave together disparate, often conflicting forms of expertise. This will be critical for developing credible science-informed policy judgements in the public interest.
Building capacity in weaving science and policy expertise
Established at the Australian National University, the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) was the first science communication centre in Australia. Its mission is to encourage a confident democratic ownership of science nationally and internationally.
In the past five years, CPAS has been building on its established strengths in public communication of science to develop a program of work at the interface of science, technology and public policy. This includes training and education programs at the undergraduate, Masters and PhD level, research on science advice and the science/policy interface, and facilitating engagement between diverse scientific, societal and policy perspectives.
Researchers at CPAS are currently building on our core strengths in knowledge-brokering to explore ways of identifying and integrating such different perspectives in order to inform the governance of emerging technologies and to support urgently-needed environmental transitions.
CPAS also explores cases where experts and policymakers in other parts of the world have already considered the implications of specific science-related issues for public policy.
One such example is CPAS’ work with Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) in 2021, where they examined the ramifications of new breeding techniques (NBTs) in food production. This required investigation of underlying values, policy considerations and contexts that shape how NBTs can be assessed based on what we know from debates in Europe and elsewhere.
In this instance, CPAS was able to deploy skills in understanding the interface between science/society and science/policy as well as between different disciplines. This work made an essential contribution to how policymakers understand the risks of new technologies and the engagement mechanisms that can foster deeper learning before controversies erupt.
In today’s world, policymakers need to grapple with the diversity and complexity of scientific knowledge as they make key decisions. Working at the interface between the worlds of science, society and policy, CPAS strives to lift appreciation of the benefit of expertise for policymaking, while also working to mediate between different forms of expertise in ways that get to the heart of our shared policy challenges.
CPAS brings an understanding of the dynamics between knowledge and action. By learning what questions to ask, and asking them early, CPAS can work with policymakers to identify the conditions under which trustworthy policy decisions could be made and communicated in the public interest.
CPAS is building a Science and Policy Network to foster Australian capacity to weave together science and policy considerations in decision-making. We welcome inquiries and expressions of interest in participating in our Network.