Science-Policy Interface: International Comparison Workshop

May 21st to May 23rd
Organized by Heather Douglas, University of Waterloo

Nicolae Morar (The Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State University) & Kevin Elliott (Michigan State University)

From May 21st to May 23rd, the University of Waterloo’s Heather Douglas organized an impressive international workshop concerning the relationship between science and policy. Both of us, Nicolae and Kevin, had the privilege to attend these three intellectually intense days of talks, all casting light on various aspects of the complex interaction between science and governance. A number of scholars form Canada, the US, and the UK tackled questions regarding the nature of science advising in those countries, the role of patents in regulating inventions, the input of think tanks in generating or promoting specific science agendas, the regulation of emerging technologies, the importance of public participation in the scientific enterprise, and the strategies of past and current science advisors in promoting science for education and democracy. The quality of the invited speakers  was outstanding, and the comparisons between science policy in the US, UK, and Canada was instructive.

As Heather mentioned in her opening statement, the goal of the workshop was not to minimize the importance of differences in science policy among those three countries, but to make the safe assumption that a synoptic view will not only capture the variation of norms for science policy, but also provide insights into the possibility for future international conceptual frameworksfor science policy toemerge. As Heather said, “If a consensus concerning the proper science-policy interface does not emerge among three quite similar countries, the likelihood for a truly international framework is significantly diminished.”

Paul Dufour’s opening talk on Wednesday pointed out the importance of stable institutions (unlike the situation in Canada) for creating the conditions for science to play an important economic and social role in a democratic society. From the US side, David Hart showed the limitations of explaining scientific progress through measures like the ratio between R&D investments and GDP growth, the big X story  (i.e., the inversion of federal and business roles in science), and the “iron law” of science, according to which scientists have found a way for the past 30 years to be always awarded about 10% of the ‘resource’ pie. Those stories fail to integrate more complex factors such as sources of funding, the set of organizations in place, the system of rules governing the innovation system, and ultimately, a normative order. Last, James Wilsdon, offered us insights into the UK’s situation regarding science advice, along with a number of crises of legitimacy (mad cow disease, GMO crops, climategate, etc.). The first day continued with presentations from Gordon McBean, who talked about the benefits for Canada of international science and policy efforts, and Lucie Edwards, who discussed the striking challenges facing scientists in the Global South.

The second day provided a series of panels on Patent Policy, Think Tanks, and Emerging Technologies, all culminating with James Wilsdon’s keynote address on Science, Technology, and Experiments in Democracy. One of the themes to emerge from all these panels was the complex range of institutions that mediate the science-policy interface. For example, Justin Biddle pointed out how patent policies can limit research, and Shobita Parthasarathy showed how patents can provide a venue for citizens to raise ethical concerns about scientific innovations. Similarly, Tom Medvetz highlighted the growing influence of think tanks in all aspects of government decision making, including science policy.

The last day continued with two additional topics: Public Participation in Science and Science Advisors in Practice. The caliber of speakers was impressive throughout the event, but the last panel was particularly striking. Heather set up a panel with Arthur Carty (Canada’s first National Science Advisor from 2004-2008) and with neuroscientist Remi Quirion (current chief scientist for Quebec). The science-policy question cannot be disconnected from the political conditions that foster successful and productive interactions between science and democracy. The speakers discussed how democratic society should strive to find a balance between R&D that promotes social and economic benefits, commercialization and innovation, revitalization of government science, and ongoing major science investments.  They contended that the role of the science advisor is to continue to be a sound and non-partisan voice, while acknowledging the importance of public engagement with science and other evolving challenges to our democracies.

Going forward from the workshop, we think that several issues merit further discussion. First, it would be valuable to incorporate even more insights from social psychologists into science-policy discussions. The sessions at the workshop clearly showed the importance of policy constraints, the role of various institutions, and the significance of funding trends and public engagement. For the most part, the underlying working assumption was: if we fix those (environmental/external) conditions, then the deliberative conversation we ought to have about science-policy concerns (public engagement, etc.) will more or less naturally follow. This approach may assume a form of rational agency that has been called into question by some social psychologists in the past thirty years. While the conference incorporated the perspective of Kieran O’Doherty, a social psychologist who is experimenting with deliberative approaches that address some of these concerns, it would be very interesting to explore further the ramifications of this research for our understanding of scientific reasoning, of the ways that scientists interface with policy makers, and of the ways that multiple publics interact with scientists and other figures.

Another important issue going forward is how to develop science-policy dialogues in ways that serve the Global South. Lucie Edwards presented a fascinating but also discouraging litany of the challenges facing many of the world’s countries. While countries like China, Brazil, South Africa, and India have potential to become strong players in many areas of science, she pointed out that the scientific infrastructure in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa is becoming worse rather than better. Moreover, this is happening at the same time that these countries are facing new challenges from climate change. Nevertheless, she presented some fascinating suggestions from scientists that are operating in those countries. These included strategies for using citizen science to gather weather data that has stopped being collected in many locations. We think that these challenges and opportunities deserve ongoing attention. We hope this event opens the door for future collaborations, and we would like to congratulate Heather and the entire Science and Technology focus group at the University of Waterloo for having put together such a successful workshop.

The SRPoiSE group should be particularly proud when its members prove the relevance of philosophy (of science) in significant social debates. Thanks Heather!

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