29 Sep 2016   |   Viewpoint

In a post-factual world politicians have never been more in need of science advice

New Zealand's chief science adviser Peter Gluckman says the demand for expert advice keeps on growing, despite an apparent dismissal of evidence in politics today

The current post-factual, anti-expert mood, which appears to have taken hold in parts of the world has not dampened the demand for science advice, according to Peter Gluckman, New Zealand's chief science adviser.

As evidence, he points to some 600 policymakers and researchers from 72 countries who are meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow, under the tent pole of the International Network for Government Science Advice.

The body, of which Gluckman is chair, was formed after an initial meeting in Auckland in 2014, and is growing in prominence. “From nowhere two years ago, we’ve taken off like a […] rocket,” Gluckman told Science|Business. 

The network’s broad goal is to boost the role of science in public policy all around the world. Its tiny secretariat is based in Gluckman’s office and receives seed funding from the Wellcome Trust in Britain.

“It’s all being run on the smell of an oily rag, but we’re claiming some success,” Gluckman said. He hosts training workshops and participates in conferences all around the world. “Buenos Aries, South Africa, Jordan,” he listed.

The World Science Forum has asked the network to draw up a set of principles and guidelines for effective global advisory systems. An African offshoot is in the works, and will involve scientists from South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Egypt.

“We’re not a political bunch. We’re not looking to build an empire, nor are we coming to evangelise or advocate about any one issue,” says Gluckman. “What we’re doing is filling a void that exists in several countries.”

Tough time to be an expert

Still, the meeting in Brussels coincides with events that would suggest the public has minimal tolerance – scorn even – for experts at the moment.

Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23 after a campaign with little or no recognition of the evidence offered by scientists. Discussions around research or evidence have not much troubled the US presidential election campaign either.

So is science losing its clout? Gluckman thinks not. “The issues are more complex, for sure,” he said. From cybersecurity to climate change, food technologies to fracking, pandemics to poverty, the questions being asked of scientists continue to grow.

However, he is relaxed with the idea that sometimes evidence can be trumped by strongly-held views. Policymakers should heed the advice of scientists but not necessarily follow it.

“Us scientists can be a bit naïve sometimes. We have to get beyond the hubris, the arrogance of thinking we hold the answers to everything,” Gluckman said.

The knottiest question Gluckman has faced in office involved a debate around fluoride in water. He fought claims that fluoride contributes to cancer, musculoskeletal and hormonal disorders.

“You might think it would be easy to advise on one of the most thoroughly worked questions in public health science over some decades, but many parts of the population found it problematic,” he said.

And - as in the similarly polarised debate around GM crops - “just because we say they are safe to eat doesn’t mean we should have them.”

“Science has to hold a privileged place but there’s no black and white answers for policymakers. We have to recognise that there’s the culture of science and the culture of politics, and we’re simply the ‘evidence brokers’ in between,” Gluckman said.

Post-fact?    

Gluckman concedes it has never been easier to distort facts, with the Internet conducive to the quick spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“There’s an explosion of data and the filtering system has changed. The fourth estate – the media – is different. Once, you had several reliable organs but now there’s a proliferation of media that are about entertainment and generating controversies as much as they are about truth.

“So, you have a lot of discussions being replaced with sort of ‘Twitter discourses’. And all the science in the world will not stop creationists believing in creationism,” he said.

However, the thought will not stop Gluckman applying his trade, which he says will continue growing to meet a barrage of misinformation in the world.

“The science adviser is going to become quite a distinct and sought-after career in the next few years,” he predicts.

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