Good communication between scientists and policy-makers is not the norm, but there are ways it could be improved, says Professor Herbert Huppert.
Experienced scientists say there is a 20 per cent chance of a huge eruption on Santorini this coming summer. The last eruption, which produced the beautiful harbour some of you may know, 3,500 years ago, was one of the largest ever recorded on Earth and spewed out about 60 cubic kilometres of rock.
Why can’t the damn volcanologists be more definite in their forecasts, think government officials. I can’t close 20 per cent of the shops and hotels. I have to decide how to react and what advice to give to citizens of my country. I could say nothing, or little; and if then an eruption occurs, killing thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, including many of my countrymen on holiday, there will be a big, damning inquiry. On the other hand, if warnings are issued and tourism drops, the island will suffer financially, maybe even terminally, and the Greek government will be furious. Why can’t the scientists give definite answers?
Science and scientific thinking play an ever-increasing role in our lives. Simple everyday decisions, such as whether to enjoy white or brown bread, full-cream or skimmed milk, well-cooked or raw meat, should be made not only according to particular taste, but also by what is ‘good for you’—meaning increasing the likelihood of your surviving healthier and for longer.
Governments, on the other hand, need to make very large-scale decisions. They need to decide how to provide their people with sufficient energy, whether to support and encourage mass immunisation and how best to reduce crime, for example. All these decisions are best supported with firm scientific evidence. From this one might conclude that scientific researchers, with a keen knowledge and understanding of newly developing science, would be in much demand and constantly consulted by policy makers. This is true in part. For example, many chief scientific advisers have played essential roles in formulating government policy. The great names of Lord Cherwell (adviser to Winston Churchill during World War II), and the Australian Bob May immediately spring to mind.
In general, however, good, flowing communication between these two groups is unusual. Why? Part of the problem arises from the different timescales envisaged by the two camps. Present a difficult, involved problem to most top-notch research scientists and their imagination runs off into how to solve it: what careful, innovative experiments to design and run; how to possibly analyse the data; and how the interpretation of the results will not only answer the question suggested to him or her by the policy-maker but will initiate a new area of research as well. But of course the policy-maker wants the best available answer immediately.
Part of the scientist’s difficulty in intellectually connecting with the policy-maker is that the latter learned his or her science mainly at a rudimentary level where all is facts and absolutely definite. Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium… and so on is the order of the elements, and will ever remain so. To every reaction there will always be an equal and opposite reaction. The human gestation period is 42 weeks and commences by a male sperm encountering an egg from a female to produce a foetus.
But, at the coalface of evolving science, we still cannot be certain that high usage of mobile phones by youngsters before their brain is fully developed is not deleterious to later development. We do not yet know how to efficiently capture incident solar energy although we have been trying to achieve this for at least fifty years, yet we do know that the solar radiation arriving on the surface of the Earth is approximately a hundred thousand times what we currently use.
Politicians believe in democracy, at least in free countries. A majority of votes—in the country, in the House or in Cabinet—is sufficient. Science is not a democracy. At the extremes, everyone can believe something without it being correct. Most people thought the Earth was flat before Galileo. It was thought for some time that one could not exceed the speed of sound (though the end of whips, for example, had done so for ages). Will there ever be a total cure for cancer, heart attacks and strokes? People's current thoughts, even those of scientists, are close to irrelevant.
A standard way that a research scientist proceeds is to make or suggest a hypothesis and, maybe after many tests, experiments, scientific analyses later, s/he may find the hypothesis is false. S/he retracts and pursues another line; and his or her reputation may even be enhanced. Changing your mind, even if based on new evidence, is seen in a politician as a U-turn, dishonourable, disingenuous. Many parliamentarians, however, may not understand the role of hypotheses-making and testing. In response to a question about a UK government policy, a minister gave the answer and then added: 'and the government is just initiating the research project to prove it.'
Although numerous civil servants have scientific experience and knowledge, few parliamentarians do. In the UK only one member of the House of Commons at the moment has research experience beyond the PhD level. He happens to be my son. In Congress in the US the only scientist of comparable experience is the member for Princeton. Residents of this city often sport the bumper sticker: 'my congressman really is a rocket scientist'. No current member of the Australian Senate or the House of Representatives has a PhD in science.
Added to these different interpretations is the concept of statistics and risk. The unknowable nature of Santorini mentioned at the beginning is one of many where the scientist can only, at the moment, give probabilistic answers to questions of great interest to policy makers who seek definite solutions.
Consider now the closely associated area of risk. We take risks all the time in our daily lives. We cross the road in anticipation that the bus will not yet have reached where we are. We leave it until the last minute to start a task, or buy a ticket, or decide to hit a drop shot with the aim of fooling our opponents. Yet the perception of many of the risks we often face is scientifically invalid. Generally, people are more scared of plane travel than car travel, especially when they are driving. But the risk of dying in an automobile accident greatly outweighs that in a plane. I have a colleague who will only take the train from Cambridge to London, or back, if he has a rearward facing seat, because it is safer. But he is a busy, important scientist, so as he cycles to the station he dictates to his PA into his dictaphone held in his hand!
All this notwithstanding, there have been some successful interactions between scientists and policy-makers. During World War II, sometimes referred to as the physicists’ war, Albert Einstein (because of his eminence) signed a letter written by Leo Szilard (because of his political acumen) which was sent to President Roosevelt pointing out the recent discovery of chain reactions which suggested an atomic bomb of unimaginable power could be built, and hinted further that the Allies must do so before the Germans. The Manhattan Project was quickly set up and supported by both scientists and government. However, it pitted the imaginative and broad-thinking scientist Oppenheimer against General Groves, the head of the project. They often clashed in their opinions of how to proceed. In particular, Groves insisted the bomb be deployed in anger against Japan, because otherwise he would have spent a huge amount of government money and overseen a vast operation for nothing. Oppenheimer’s response to the use of the bomb, its necessity still debated today, was 'I have become death; the destroyer of worlds'.
Possibly the greatest Australian scientist, Howard Florey, started developing penicillin in October 1938, subjected it to its first clinical tests in February 1941 and it was already widely in use a year later. It is inconceivable today that a completely new medical cure could be put into practice without years of clinical trials on animals, and then people, all demanded by unimaginative, careful and litigation-aware government administrators.
In contrast, the possibility of Katrina and its devastating impact was forecast some time before it happened and even written about at length in the journal Scientific American. The decision-makers did nothing to make New Orleans more secure. A report on the definiteness at some time in the future of the eruption of the Soufriere Hills on Montserrat and the devastation it would cause languished on the desk of the Governor of Montserrat and nothing was done either to warn the population or mitigate against the outcome, even though the report, based on fine geological field work, had to be specially requested.
Of course a decision that is scientifically sensible and correct may not be the best way to proceed politically, which immediately pits the scientists and policy-makers against each other. For example, I once went to see a junior minister of the British Home Office about an aspect of defence against terrorism. After an hour and a half’s extensive discussion I said: 'I think, Minister, you totally understand the scientific points and recommendations I am making.' 'I agree totally with you, Professor,' the Minister replied. 'Then, why will you not implement the suggested decisions?' I immediately responded. Because it is not politically possible, was the answer; the PM (Tony Blair) would not allow me to take such an initiative.
As a scientist, and an Australian, I would say that not enough science is undertaken, especially in Australia, in contrast to that undertaken in the US, the UK or Europe for example. The current chief scientific adviser to the Australian government, Ian Chubb, agrees with me. When an Australian batsman, for example, hits a ton, especially against the old foe of England, the success is cheered on the front page of every newspaper and we are reminded that he is joining the ‘club’ populated by among others Bradman, Border and Chappell. When an Australian scientist is elected to the Royal Society, joining the ‘club’ whose members include Newton, Banks, Darwin and Einstein, there will not be even a mention anywhere in the newspapers.
Another interesting and greatly important example of different attitudes is the area of climate change. Most scientists believe there is a high probability that the average atmospheric temperature will continue to increase with devastating results for many, including increased severe storms and flooding. The political response: nothing.
A very similar critique could be written on the interactions between academic scientists and industry. Both groups could benefit enormously from closer discussions: academic scientists could research into more relevant and worthwhile questions, of great interest to industry, which (almost) all academic scientists would like; and industry could benefit financially from greater scientific input, to increase their profitability, which (almost) all CEOs and shareholders would like. This sort of interaction in Australia is generally abysmal; in the UK it is bad; while it is quite healthy in the USA—and it shows.
An area in which there are good and immediate connections between scientists and users of the science is sport. Sailing has its scientific experts, who along with their wind-tunnel tests are heavily involved in the design of the 'secret' keels for the America Cup yachts and the best form of sails. English cricket uses machines which scientifically reproduce in minute detail the form and motion of Australian bowlers. English batsmen go to the crease with much previous experience of the run up, over-arm motion and swing of a bowler, even though they may never have met before. Very detailed and secret wind-tunnel tests were used to design the bikes and the way they were ridden by cyclists representing Britain during the 2012 Olympics in London. The scientific efforts were reflected in Britain’s spectacular success in the Velodrome—coached by an Australian!
So, how do you bring scientists and policy-makers together?
Superficially the answer is obvious: each group needs to learn more about the attitudes and aspirations of the other. Policy-makers need to learn more science; scientists need to understand better the immediate needs and political constraints imposed on policy-makers. The scientifically trained British MP mentioned above suggested crash courses in science for his colleagues. They were not interested; though the excuse was that they didn’t have the time.
Professor Herbert Huppert is Professor of Geophysics at the University of Cambridge and a Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statisics at UNSW.
This is an edited transcript of his address on Ockham's Razor on ABC Radio National.