Evidence matters… but not to everyone

06 Jul 2017 | Viewpoint
No one underestimates the difficulty of shoehorning science into policy. Partiality is inevitable, but policy makers need to be transparent in showing what underlies their decisions - and what evidence they choose to ignore

About 100 citizens from across Europe went to the European Parliament recently to tell policymakers that evidence matters.

I had high hopes for a strong commitment from our policymakers at the meeting - hosted by a cross-party group of MEPs and addressed by EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas - to make better use of scientific evidence to inform their work.

At the start of the session16 citizens gave their perspectives on the importance of evidence in policy making.

First we heard from Mónika Réti, a Hungarian concerned about the inconsistency of advice given to women during pregnancy. Her worries seem well justified:  within Hungary the advice on what foods and supplements should be consumed and physical behaviours should be adopted during pregnancy changes on a regular basis, with little explanation of why this guidance is being put in place.

Reti argued for transparency, for policymakers to show why and how they had made these decisions, and to make clear the evidence by which they were being informed.

The 16 citizen messages were local in origin, and personal in nature, but highlighted issues that affect all of Europe.

So for example, Rezart Hoxhaj, a researcher from Albania, raised concerns that the evidence demonstrating the economic and societal benefits of migration is being overlooked.  

Ingeborg Senneset, a journalist from Norway, made the case for careful consideration of evidence from multiple perspectives, arguing that rigorous scrutiny of evidence can help build common ground whilst defending freedom of expression.

A change in the air

These messages and the full auditorium, much like the March for Science earlier this year, demonstrate the growing feeling among the public that policy making needs to change, to be more inclusive of the people it affects, and more open about how decisions are made.

However, for the policymakers this is far from straightforward. In their responses to the citizens, MEPs argued they are often overwhelmed by the amount of evidence, by conflicting evidence, and by the need to respond to public opinion.

Julie Girling, a Conservative MEP from the UK, summarised this issue with an example. The public would, she argued, consume coffee despite evidence that it might be carcinogenic, but would complain if fertilisers that might be carcinogenic were approved for wide-scale use. In this case, the fertiliser should be approved until there was overwhelming evidence that it might be harmful, Girling suggested.

I agree such situations are complex and there is a need to sift through several sources of evidence before coming to a conclusion. But there is a big difference between an individual’s choice to take a small, informed risk in consuming a potentially harmful product and the use of a potentially harmful chemical on such a scale that much of the population consumes it without knowing.

More transparency and inclusion

For Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, there is a need to show the public the processes of decision-making, and to reduce the growing gap between the public and science. To make this work there must be more cooperation, more inclusion and more engagement, not just communication, he said.

These discussions are not new; former EU science advisor Anne Glover has long been making the case for objective science advice for EU policymakers. The development of the Scientific Advice Mechanism came about as one way of trying to address these issues, and they are a key element of Moedas’ Vision for Europe of Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World.

What is new is the growing citizen voice in this arena, demonstrated by the strong turn-out for this event, which was organised by the science policy lobby group Sense about Science.

Several times during the event people referred to making the “right” decision. For me this misses the point. Politics doesn’t really work like that and, much though it is often portrayed otherwise, science does not provide absolute truths.

What science does offer is the ability to make an informed risk:benefit assessment. Understanding the possible consequences of a decision enables the public to make more informed choices and to be more active citizens. This is what I want policymakers to take on board.

There are going to be times when legislation is shaped by politics and ideology, rather than by research and evidence. But policy makers can show their reasoning, be transparent about their sources, and what evidence they chose to listen to, and what to ignore.

Or they can generate alternative facts to support their decisions. I know which approach I prefer.


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