Why the craft of weaving science and politics together is more important now than ever

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many world leaders assured something that seemed plausible – and welcome – to science lovers everywhere: simply, that they would ‘follow the science’.

But if you’ve moved to a modern college campus, or taken a tour through a variety of labs run by CSIRO, you’ll likely be aware that the modern world of science is not as simple as this brilliant assertion might portray.

Modern science is complex and diverse. Our research landscape produces a wide range of different forms of knowledge, many of which are difficult to explain in broader settings. And every day more is being produced – building an understanding of the world that outsiders will find more complex, specialized and, unfortunately, difficult to work with.

To answer these world leaders, science doesn’t offer just one simple piece of advice. In fact, she can’t.

To tackle an issue as complex as the pandemic, we need the insights and ideas of a range of different disciplines. Virologists, immunologists, public health scientists, sociologists, psychologists, communication experts, and political scientists, to name a few.

The same can be said, of course, of many of the other major challenges that policy advisors face today: Finding ways to craft the expertise to make sound policy judgments can be a risky process.

These difficulties may arise because the science is incomplete, uncertain or still developing as was the case with Covid-19. Or we may find different scholars in open disagreement about what the facts are. In some cases, we may notice a clear conflict of interest that helps outsiders see who is more or less trustworthy. But often, things are not that simple.

Experts may reasonably disagree about the effectiveness of wearing a mask outdoors because they make different judgments about how to assess effectiveness—not necessarily because of ulterior motives. Countless such examples can be cited.

So while it’s common to talk about the need to “bridging the gap” between the worlds of politics and science, something richer is needed. We believe that what is required are the skills and insights to talk back and forth across the landscape of evidence and action, allowing policy advisors and experts in the discipline to ask each other the right questions.

This work may involve returning to the policy problem at hand and asking whether it has been adequately framed in light of the new experience. It can include asking what types of evidence are needed and when. It may also involve knowing the limits of specialized evidence, and the contexts in which certain claims to knowledge may or may not apply. It cannot be done overnight.

In short, before the next crisis hits us, we need to build capacity in our collective ability to recognize and weave together forms of disparate and often conflicting experiences. This will be critical to developing credible, science-informed political judgments for the public interest.

Capacity building in the field of sewing knowledge and political experience

Founded at the Australian National University, the Australian National Center for Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) was Australia’s first science communication center. Its mission is to encourage democratic and confident ownership of the flag at the national and international levels.

In the past five years, CPAS has been building on its well-established strengths in public science communication to develop a program of work at the interface of science, technology, and public policy. This includes training and education programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, research on scientific advice and the science/policy interface, and facilitation of engagement between various scientific, societal, and policy perspectives.

CPAS researchers are currently drawing on our core strengths in knowledge brokering to explore ways to identify and integrate different perspectives in order to inform the governance of emerging technologies and support urgently needed environmental shifts.

CPAS also explores cases in which experts and policymakers in other parts of the world have already considered the public policy implications of specific science-related issues.

One example is CPAS’s work with Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) in 2021, where they studied the implications of new breeding techniques (NBTs) in food production. This required an investigation of the core values, policy considerations and contexts that shape how NBTs are evaluated based on what we know from discussions in Europe and elsewhere.

In this case, CPAS was able to deploy skills in understanding the relationship between science/society and science/politics as well as between different disciplines. This work has made a fundamental contribution to how policymakers understand the risks of new technologies and the engagement mechanisms that can enhance deep learning before controversies erupt.

In today’s world, policy makers need to contend with the diversity and complexity of scientific knowledge as they make key decisions. Working at the interface between the worlds of science, society, and politics, CPAS strives to raise an appreciation of the usefulness of experience in policymaking, while also mediating different forms of experience in ways that get to the heart of common policy challenges.

CPAS brings an understanding of the dynamics between knowledge and action. By knowing what questions to ask and asking ahead of time, CPAS can work with policy makers to identify conditions under which credible policy decisions can be made and reported in the public interest.

CPAS is building a Science and Policy Network to enhance Australia’s ability to bring science and policy considerations together in decision-making. Inquiries and expressions of interest are welcome to participate in our network.

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