We know that alcohol can be dangerous. And, according to the best available expert advice, we know how to reduce levels of consumption: make it more expensive. But policymakers have so far decided against such a move. Why?

Science has a sometimes fraught relationship with politics. Alcohol policy is one issue among many. The past year has seen the sacking of Professor David Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the widely-publicised controversy over University of East Anglia’s climate science.

As part of the Society’s See Further festival, the Science Policy Centre held a debate on The Experimental Society – What happens when expertise, evidence and politics collide? Our panel (Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, Lord Krebs FRS, Professor Sheila Jasanoff, Professor David Nutt and Professor Mike Hulme) discussed whether these cases are an exception or whether they point to a general problem. And if there is a problem, what should we do about it? Science, and the Royal Society, is all about experimentation. (the Society’s earliest fellows once gathered to test the hypothesis that powdered unicorn horn would imprison a spider…) So why do politicians so often demand certainty from scientists?

Our President, Martin Rees, opened the debate with reference to his recent Reith lectures:

“Winston Churchill once said that scientists should be “on tap, not on top.” And it is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But the role of scientific advice is not just to provide facts to support policies. Experts should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties of science. But there’s one thing they mustn’t forget. Whether the context be nuclear power, drug classification, or health risks, political decisions are seldom purely scientific. They involve ethics, economics and social policies as well. And in domains beyond their special expertise, scientists speak just as citizens.”

Lord Krebs FRS, former chair of the Food Standards Agency, has plenty of experience at the frontline of such discussions. He described the alcohol example and the notoriously complicated issue of badger-culling. In both cases, disentangling the evidence from the politics has proved hard.

Professor Sheila Jasanoff suggested that we are at a fork in the road. The first option is to throw science at the problem, stripping away as much politics as we can. Option two is to get better at the politics. Option one tries to close down discussion, to limit the experimentation to the scientists. Option two opens up the experiment, inviting the public to join in (one report calls it collective experimentation). Jasanoff’s point is that, when it comes to some of our most pressing science policy issues, we can’t separate the science from the politics. She argues that new technologies such as GM crops and geoengineering take society into a sort of real-time experiment. Scientists, in such situations, may need to sharpen up their political skills.

Professor David Nutt has felt the sharp end of politics. Working in a highly political area of policy – the classification of illegal drugs – he was sacked when he spoke out about the relative risks of ecstasy and what he called equasy (horseriding). Nutt’s argument was that scientists should stick to science (and be free to speak openly about it) and politicians to politics.

Finally, Professor Mike Hulme spoke about the case of climate change. Hulme is a climate scientist from the University of East Anglia. He has felt the strength of attacks on orthodox climate science. But he argues that science has no option but to get better at dealing with public scrutiny, from interest groups, members of the public or the blogosphere. In the long run, he argues, it will make for better science.

The conclusion, if we can draw one from such a wide-ranging discussion, is that society does need to get better at understanding the experimental nature of science. But this may mean scientists opening up their experiments for others to join in.  Are we yet ready for the experimental society?

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