[OPINION] Scientists and politicians should break out of their bubbles


The Taal volcano eruption and novel coronavirus outbreak have highlighted the complex interplay of scientific evidence and public policy making. While scientists explained the technical aspects of alert level warnings and viral transmission, several public officials downplayed, if not dismissed, their advice as merely one of the many contending factors in decision making. A local official caught the limelight for openly doubting volcanologists’ alert warnings and encouraging people to defy lockdown orders. To the dismay of medical practitioners, the Health Secretary initially refused to ban entry of travelers from China to preserve diplomatic relations.

Academics and technocrats readily came forward to defend colleagues and argue for evidence-based policy-making. The clamor was for government to listen to experts, favor science over politics, and reserve seats for scientists in congress. Alongside threats to limit funding for research, recent circumstances indeed demand deeper appreciation and steadfast application of science to address societal issues. (READ: [OPINION] Speaking truth to power: Why the government should listen to scientists)

However, a constructive discourse should not keep the bob swayed to the scientific evidence side of the pendulum. Understanding the dynamics of political decision making is crucial to effectively apply scientific findings.

Admittedly, I am not a scientist. My background is in law and policy as former legislative staff, a policy reform advocate, lecturer on public policy, and now faculty member of a public affairs school in a university that hosts the country’s foremost academicians and scientists. These experts undeniably offer reliable technical knowledge that can provide rational basis for government and individual actions. In the medical field, scientific consensus on the perils of smoking have led to high excise taxes, strict labeling, and no-smoking zones to regulate cigarette use. In agriculture, climate forecasting enables farmers to plant crops that will to optimize profit and at the same time protect the environment. (READ: [OPINION] Scientists should have a privileged position in government)

But we must also acknowledge that policy making is an inherently political process. It involves the difficult task of harmonizing or choosing among competing social values. Policy work is unfortunately not a mechanical exercise dependent on formula nor confined to laboratory experiments. For instance, in post-disaster planning, a Geographic Information System (GIS) can generate meticulous flood hazard maps specifying danger zones. A purely technical approach would outrightly declare those areas off-limits to residents. The process of re-zoning however goes beyond color-coded charts. It entails contextualized sensitivity to the people’s sense of individual and community identities which are often tied to the land they and their ancestors have cultivated for decades. 

To be clear, the point is not to politicize science nor undermine technical findings. I do not wish to excuse politicians’ ignorance nor defend officials who disregard expert opinion or scoff at scientists while accusing them of being stuck in ivory towers. Neither is the intent to completely remove politics from the policy process and reduce governance to technical decision making, disembedded from culture and relationships. Rather, the call is for an earnest and pragmatic openness and cooperation among scientists and policy makers to understand different perspectives, priorities, and roles that must coalesce to reach the best possible decision.

Indeed, policy makers are not scientists, and scientists are not policy makers. We have seen the problem with public attorneys evaluating the health effects of a vaccine. I have also witnessed how some of the best minds in science can be the worst public managers. Though there exists a rare breed of scientists who are effective public administrators and vice versa, we must acknowledge that different skill sets and passions characterize the two professions.

It is when these unique specializations work together by listening to and complementing each other that we have a comprehensive understanding of issues and options. Government must therefore institutionalize platforms and mechanisms for scientific evidence to become part of decision-making. Technical working groups and expert advisory systems are some of the initiatives that have been in place but need to be strengthened to make them efficient, inclusive, and transparent. For their part, scientists must be ready to articulate findings clearly and convincingly, with thoughtful appreciation of deeply held and contested ideals and claims. Investments in research must therefore incorporate interdisciplinary approaches including science communication.

This thinking on evidence and politics is not new. Policy science has evolving schools of thought on the policy process driven by knowledge and power as well as scientific practice and democratic participation. Some scholars prefer the term evidence-informed over evidence-based to describe decisions that properly consider but are not beholden to technical input. Higher learning institutions have been promoting multi- and interdisciplinarity among the hard sciences, social sciences, and the arts in teaching, research, and extension services. Moreover, development practitioners have realized that successful reforms need to be both technically correct and politically possible.  

Perhaps today’s issues demand a louder voice for science. But after Taal and the coronavirus, the tension between science and policy is a reality we will continue to grapple with, for such tension is indispensable to ensure constant deliberation towards good governance. Much work needs to be done to sensibly link science and politics, two worlds with distinct assumptions and rules. Yet science and politics should not operate in their own bubbles if they both aspire to solve pressing world problems. – Rappler.com

Atty. Damcelle Torres-Cortes is an Assistant Professor at the College of Public Affairs and Development, University of the Philippine Los Baños.