The second half of the 20th century saw a convergence of science and policy. This led to the creation of several intergovernmental scientific organisations in Europe, starting with CERN in 1954, which are all now world-leaders in their fields.
Collectively, they cover a broad spectrum of basic research from fundamental physics to life sciences. All have contributed to the knowledge and innovation on which our modern society is built: the world wide web, for instance, was created at CERN and the laboratory has contributed to the development of numerous technologies ranging from medical imaging and treatments to solar energy. This is what happens when science and policy work together.
CERN and similar organisations were born through the efforts of visionary scientists and policy makers wishing to foster scientific excellence and peaceful collaboration across borders, enabling science to serve society more broadly. They are founded on the ideal of individuals and nations collectively working to solve shared problems and achieve common goals. More than ever, the world needs today the kind of science-policy partnership that they embody.
Today’s world is much changed from the one that saw the creation of CERN. We live at a time of tremendous opportunity generated by advances in science and technology, yet at the same time we face major societal challenges ranging from food supply to climate change, all of which require the contribution of science if they are to be overcome. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is making sure that science is on the policy agenda in the first place.
Any disconnect between science and policy has potentially negative implications for all of us because it undermines evidence-based decision making when we need it the most. If science is not fully engaged with policy-making, we are likely to see ill-informed decisions with global consequences for issues such as climate, and we may be hindered in seizing the opportunities that science and technology have to offer.
In 2015, the United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which provides a great opportunity for policy and science to work together. The Agenda is a unique roadmap for the international community over the coming years, setting ambitious targets in 17 areas ranging from eliminating poverty through ensuring health and wellbeing to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. In many of these areas, science has an important and indispensable role to play.
Many scientists prefer to stay clear of policy, and indeed stay out of the public eye altogether. Sometimes this is drawn from the frustration of seeing the subtleties of the evidence contorted to produce the startling ‘scientists have proved’ headlines that certain elements of the media crave. Sometimes it is because they are concerned that their results will be misused, and that contributing to policy discussions might undermine their scientific integrity and professional credibility. Sometimes it is simply because their skills are better suited to the laboratory.
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The policy arena is not for all scientists, and nor should it be. But for those willing and able to engage with this challenging and complex world, it’s increasingly important that they do so. Our shared future is dependent on it. We need scientists to take part in public debate, and we need the role and the nature of science to be fully understood by those who make decisions.
Science-based policy does not mean that we must have scientists in positions of political power, although in many administrations the number of scientists among our elected representatives is worryingly low. Nor does it mean that we should replace political debate with an exchange of scientific facts. And it certainly does not mean that scientists possess a special kind of moral superiority in the public arena.
What it does mean is that we need scientists and science to be a valued and respected part of global discourse so that policy decisions are grounded in evidence. This will not necessarily lead to one particular outcome on a policy level, but it will ensure that when policy decisions are made, they will not be made blindly. Whatever our decision-makers do, they will do so with a clear knowledge of the likely consequences based on the current state of the scientific evidence. We therefore urgently need to strengthen trust and dialogue between scientists and policy-makers, and for that to happen we need scientists to engage, and policy-makers to listen.