The need to inject science in politics and policy

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by Rafael Yuste and Dario Gil – from El Pais

There is no need to point out that this crisis could have been avoided, or at least its impact on public health and the economy reduced if only the technical know-how of scientists, doctors, public health experts, epidemiologists, social scientists, plus data from mathematical prediction models, had been applied in time. In countries where this happened, there is a clear correlation between prompt decision-making based on expert knowledge and the positive outcomes for both the population and the economy.

The lack of scientific-medical knowledge is particularly apparent based on the large amount of information in the public domain that is devoid of a basic level of precision and truth. The widespread use of social networks has frequently led to lowering the bar on the quality of information and data that the population receives. And it is hard for citizens – and their public representatives – to make the right decisions when the information available is neither precise, rigorous or even true.

Although we have dedicated our lives to the optimistic advance of science and technology, we are concerned about the future. We believe there will be challenges ahead to match the coronavirus – not only in the realm of global pandemics or drug-resistant infectious diseases, but also regarding issues such as climate change and the incorporation of artificial intelligence, neurotechnology and biotechnology into society.

The urgent need for science goes beyond this crisis. We’re talking about science in a broad sense, encompassing medicine and engineering. After all, medicine is the science of the human body and engineering applies scientific discoveries to the world we live in. So now is the time to bring science and scientific thinking into the corridors of power, just as legal and economic thinking was brought in over the past decades to lay the intellectual foundation of our modern political economy. As a measure of how far we have yet to go, consider the fact that more than half of the 535 members of the US Congress are lawyers while 17 are doctors and only three are scientists.

Rather than recruiting scientists as political leaders, we must inject scientific thinking into both new and existing institutions. Fundamental conceptual errors in economic thinking caused indescribable suffering to billions last century. Whether it is fighting pandemics or global climate change, scientific thinking – and the speed with which power and scientific resources for science are mobilized – will determine the wellbeing and prosperity of billions of people around the world.

But how do we incorporate scientists and scientific thinking into society’s governance and decision-making? We believe that now is the time to institutionalize the role of science in the organs of the state. Our proposal suggests several potential courses of action. First, there is the need to strengthen the role of science in countries’ governments. As has become obvious during this crisis, the economy depends on us first tackling the most fundamental of society’s problems, such as health and climate change.

Just as it is standard practice to have a deputy prime minister for the economy within a government, we think there should also be a deputy prime minister for science who carries the same weight. The person in in this role would have a professional scientific and medical background and could coordinate aspects of health, technology, development and education.

In addition to a deputy prime minister for science, which as far as we know does not exist anywhere in the world, we think that scientific advisory councils should be more rigorously and formally institutionalized as fundamental entities within any government. These advisory councils could be either national or international. An example would be the creation of International Scientific Reserves, a scientific advisory council that operates on a global level.

Besides the actual government, political parties operating in parliamentary democracies should also be seeking to strengthen the role of science in their internal discourse and decision-making. The opposition should have the equivalent of a scientific spokesmen and a scientific advisory council. By incorporating these professionals into their ranks, governments and political parties could concentrate on issues of genuine importance, reducing the shortsightedness that unfortunately dominates the political discourse in so many countries.

Besides including scientific roles within governments, we believe it is essential to strengthen the role of science within legislative bodies. All parliaments should have an official scientific advisory body, just as every parliament has a legal counsel. There are many issues – and there will be many more – that are technically difficult to understand if you do not have a basic scientific background. Parliamentarians should have first-hand information on all issues with a significant social impact as they represent the public and have an obligation to represent them in an informed manner.

It would be equally appropriate to incorporate technical knowledge into the judiciary. Judges who interpret laws to decide on real-life cases need to have first-hand scientific information. In fact, it would be appropriate for the highest judicial bodies to have advisory councils.

Finally, the media should also have professionals to hand with a scientific background to ensure that the information they distribute is based on reliable data and statistics. The press is a common good and has a huge responsibility when it comes to influencing public opinion and warning the public in crises such as the one we are experiencing. Unfortunately, during this pandemic, we have often seen alarmist medical information on the front pages of some of the world’s most popular newspapers that does not correspond to reliable data. This lack of accuracy is harmful as it undermines society’s confidence in its own ability to face the future. Many newspapers do have professionals with a scientific background they can consult, but the existence of scientific advisory boards is not a common or institutionalized occurrence.

To conclude these recommendations, we believe, along with many others, that it is more important than ever to strengthen the connection between science and society through education. This can be achieved by placing greater emphasis on science in schools and popularizing science for adults. We should encourage scientific careers and create a strong institutional system to deal with potential crises, so that scientific activity is maintained and generates the solutions that society needs.

This article appeared on El Pais.

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