Copenhagen Art Gallery – the best gallery in the world?

–          How pure are scientists?

–          Where is the line between science and policy?

–          How can scientists work with the media to get across the nuances of their science?

–          How would Birgitte Nyborg Christensen use science in her policy making?

–          How many different varieties of Carlsberg are there?

These were just some of the questions being discussed at a symposium on Science and Policy at the Danish Academy of Science and Letters last week.  Ok, the last two I might have just been asking in my mind as we were in Copenhagen, city of Borgen and Carlsberg.

Christiansborg Palace (also known as Borgen)

There was talk of the need for honesty, transparency, a return to authenticity in science advice to policy makers; amid concern about how to convey science to ‘the public’ (whoever they are).  The importance of conveying doubt, uncertainty and the limits to our knowledge was agreed (the ‘All models are wrong’ blog is a climate change example of how to do this). References were made to the times when science had failed in some respect: BSE, Climategate and the L’Aquila earthquake.

Then Sheila Jasonoff reminded us that science is chock-full of normative values.  It is unrealistic to conceive of science as ‘the truth’ whilst  policy is where all the judgements are made. Scientists need to stop thinking about how to get the public thinking the ‘right’ way and accept that science can be as value-laden as many other views.    How we convey this through the media, along with all the uncertainties and limitations, in one snappy sound-bite hasn’t been resolved!

Brian Wynne pointed out that tabloid headlines should not be confused with public opinion – the public, or more accurately publics, are more sophisticated than they are given credit for and react pragmatically to stories. The public are instinctively aware that science doesn’t know everything but when scientists try to gloss over this it leads to mistrust. Professor Wynne also suggested that it is a myth that public want no risk – when people say that, what they are actually expressing is mistrust of the relevant institution (usually the government).

Does it boil down to there not being good or bad science, just good or bad arguments?  If we can’t rely on just using scientific authority, do convincing arguments need to be made as well? As the Danish Climate Change Minister, Martin Lidegaard, argued at the start of the symposium with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’ I think that is what Birgitte would do.

To see science in policy in action, come along to one of the Royal Society’s PolicyLabs.