Chris Whitty

Chris Whitty. Image credit: GOV.UK

Delivering the inaugural David Dickson Memorial Lecture, Professor Chris Whitty (Chief Scientific Adviser at DFID) was characteristically thoughtful and provocative. An experienced research scientist and policy practitioner, Chris articulated some of the common pitfalls encountered at the science-policy interface, together with fundamental challenges for the science community.  First and foremost, what he saw as three hard hitting facts:

  1. scientists need to treat politicians with respect;
  2. scientists need to recognise that economics, not science, is the language of policy; and
  3. scientists need to accept that there is a technical-political continuum – the technical elements cannot be considered in isolation.

(For more in this vein, see this thought-provoking article)

Changing trends

At the same time, he indicated the need to be attuned to several important trends that will have significant bearing on the application of science for development:

  1. developing countries will become richer (doubling their Gross National Income in the next decade) so the cost of goods will become less relevant;
  2. there will continue to be a dramatic increase in urbanisation;
  3. there will be an increasing demand for skills – the poorest countries having less access to skilled people as the demand increases in (a growing number of) countries that can afford them; and
  4. as poverty declines, it will fragment so blanket interventions will become less effective.

Common challenges

Throughout his five year tenure as DFID Chief Scientific Adviser, Chris has observed that some of the most scathing critics in the science community – who complain about the lack of science in policy – are those who have done no policy relevant science; that retrofitting excellent science to a policy problem is all too common and unhelpful; that there is a lot of variation in the amount of policy relevant science across policy areas and disciplines; and that there is a frequent misquoting of the Haldane Principle because it ignores the fact that there is a market failure in some policy relevant research, requiring active interventions.  Whilst investigator-led, curiosity-driven research is good, there are research gaps which necessitate politicians diverting resources to more applied research.  One such gap, climate change – he said – is the “most catastrophic failure”.

Chris urged further caution in three broad areas:

  1. scientists need to be realistic about the uptake of new technologies and products, supporting them with proper economic analysis and being careful not to oversell them;
  2. scientists need to be careful not to over simplify data, conveying uncertainty clearly, accounting for social and political sciences, and being able to judge how major its role is in policy decisions (ie. contextualising and not being naïve);
  3. scientists need to test better ways of doing things, accepting that some things don’t work, being more predisposed to multidisciplinary research and synthesis(bringing together different sources and types of evidence), and being savvier about the political cycle and context.
Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother. William Henry Margetson (1861-1940)

Synthesis – the ‘Cinderella of science’. Image credit: CC-BY-NC 2.0

In fact, he referred to synthesis as the “Cinderella of science” – often overlooked but a necessary step between primary research and communicating to the policymaker. Controversially, he said that sometimes incentivising scientists to talk directly to policymakers could do more harm than good because of their narrow, technical focus. He indicated that policymaking is fast moving, and options for incorporating science are generally to ignore it, to phone a friend, to Google an issue then footnote prejudices, or to do a proper synthesis of the scientific evidence.  The latter is key but often absent.

Audiences and allies

Chris ended on a less controversial point: that of improving the receptivity for science in policy.  This includes embedding more scientists in government; improving the capacity of generalist policymakers to understand technical evidence; and improving scientific discourse in public life (the Society’s Vision report on science and mathematics education picks up on this). Journalists have an important role to play here, and it is better for journalists to get things right and be neutral, than to get things wrong and be on your side.  He also urged scientists to engage more with economists, who are willing and powerful allies if only scientists would recognise it: they are numerate and rigorously attentive to evidence.

In positive conclusion, Chris emphasised that science is transformational. The green revolution in Asia and African development are examples where multiple bits of science have led to incremental and sustained change.  Whilst some of his words may not make for comfortable reading, the science community should be heartened by these insights and take opportunities to inform policy more effectively.