Sunday, 1 January 2017

Science and its Influence: Communication and the Proper Responsibility of Governments


Many scientists see the ongoing failure of governments to support science and the recommendations of scientific research as a near inevitable outcome of scientists' failure to communicate effectively, to promote the important significance of science.

The failures of government to adopt the science agenda is not due solely to poor communication. Governments fail to address the findings of high quality research in many areas including health, education, public transport, urban planning. Governments are mostly persuaded by their own ideological agenda and the lobbying of sectional interest groups and their funders. Politicians gain support for their policies from many in the community who privilege their own preconceived views and experience over analysis of available evidence.

Many western governments approaches to public policy are based in neoclassical economic beliefs which regards private enterprise as significant, small government as highly important, as more efficient than government and high taxes as inimical to personal freedom and business success. They are loath to address issues such as inequality, government funded health and education and see the private sector as having a major role in infrastructure development and in carrying out functions once considered part of government’s remit. Business practice is considered to be very valuable. That is hardly a view based on performance? Thus many of the conclusions from scientific research, if adopted, would undermine the agenda and interests of business groups, an agenda. Others are marginalised or opposed through embracing of fundamentalist beliefs.

The ultimate course of public policy is determined by politics and alliance formation, by narratives which address the beliefs of those in power.  Logic and rationality are not central. Therefore support for a stronger role by scientific bodies and by allies is needed. The strong promotion of the achievements and significant public benefits deriving from science must continue at the same time. Above all advancement of any enterprise from small informal group to major corporation and government is significantly influenced by cohesive leadership with a clearly articulated and defensible policy. In many countries that is lacking.

For their part, government ministers need to recognise that they have a greater responsibility than mere satisfaction of their own narrow political agenda. Where governments ignore the considered findings of science the future of the community is at risk. For instance, it is not possible to claim a secure and prosperous future and at the same time continue with burning of fossil fuels unless one dismisses the majority conclusions of scientists engaged in the relevant science and the many other scientists.

There are too many examples of past errors today in respect of climate change, public health, education, infrastructure development and economics. The notion that small government and economic growth will solve everything has to be discarded.

A stronger role for science is essential and governments have to ensure that role is addressed. In the absence of perceived economic gain, usually over the short-term, the private sector will not.

Numerous programs on radio, tv and many publications focus on science. Those opposing the proposition that human agency was the main contributor to carbon emissions and climate change for instance simply didn’t listen, watch or read such material. Even a cursory glance through readers’ responses to articles and programs about subjects ranging from health to education and the arts is sufficient to show that many people consider their own already held views to be a better guide to ‘truth’ than the views of ‘experts’.

There are some who consider the views of experts to be no longer relevant and even that universities are not either. Many such people regard the benefits of education to flow principally to the individual and therefore appropriately charged to the individual rather than the citizenry through government taxes. Similar views pervade the policies of many governments concerning health and social welfare.

Continue to essay below 

A related background document addresses some issues relevant to the main theme of this essay as they concern government policy, especially in Australia.

I nearly forgot: one of the main reasons for the disregard of science is that so much of the discussion, especially within academe, is simply an argument amongst the advocates for different branches of science in order to gain more funding or more graduate students or just more. Just like everywhere else.

And the other important point is that many charged with leadership of the scientific enterprise are not sufficiently aware of the characteristics of the most successful scientific enterprises and the features of leadership there. Why was the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons successful? And the Rosetta and Philae mission to the comet 67P. The discovery of Higgs Boson? Gravity waves?

What are the successful scientific laboratories - in terms of Nobel Prizes - and what goes on there?

Australia's CSIRO continues to make very important contributions in many fields, despite ongoing reorganisations of doubtful utility and ongoing reductions in funding. Why is that?
Last, what has corporatisation and "monetisation" - the requirement that CSIRO devote its research to areas of significant economic development - contributed to success?

What are the key features of science leadership? Some other essays on this site deal with some of these issues. Robyn Williams on the Science Show has on several occasions dealt with these very issues!

The role of government seems often to be overlooked. This is a point taken up by Professor Robert Hill, Executive Dean, Faculty of Sciences at the University of Adelaide on the ABC RN Science Show for 3 December 2016. He says this, "Until Australian politicians understand and properly promote the exceptional quality of our best scientists and the obvious relevance of careers in science, we will continue to underachieve as a nation. University science faculties should also take their share of the responsibility for failing to demonstrate the wide variety of career choices available to graduates.


The problem is that scientists are poor communicators. Really?

I was at a conference the other day where some very clever people were talking about complex systems affecting society. The question could have been ‘what conclusions can we validly draw from this wealth of data?’

But what ended up being discussed was why weren’t scientists being listened to by governments and the public. Well to the extent many thought they should. The answer given, not unexpectedly, was that scientists are poor communicators and if they want to be listened to they needed to do a better job of communicating effectively to those whom they wanted to influence.

I am reminded of one of my favourite cartoons, obliquely perhaps. Scientists are attending an Astrophysics convention. As a bearded delegate leaves the meeting, the speaker, also bearded and wearing glasses (and dressed in a striped suit), pronounces, “The Sun should continue to burn for another 5 billion years – assuming the government doesn’t get involved.”

There is a view that to the extent that scientific research is not supported, scientists have not made a good enough case and that if it is that important then the private sector would be pursuing it. Such a view ignores the more short-term focus of business and the much longer time horizons which government should address on behalf of the governed.

It has to be said that simply blaming government, or saying that addressing the problems is up to others, is about as useful as shouting at the summer flies that bother us as we walk along the beach. On the other hand too many are prepared to go along with the accusation of inadequacy, instead of promoting the tremendous achievements of the scientific enterprise. None of this is new. Science policy and Government scientific advisors and chief scientists were supposed to advance the science agenda. It has not been enough.

It is by no means uncommon for problems to be blamed on those who complain they are not getting the results they want. The others, in this case the blamed, don’t really have to do very much: after all they would listen if it made sense wouldn’t they. And they have a lot of important things to do. At least that’s what politicians say.

Effective Communication

Communication is a two way process and a two way responsibility. When you talk to me, I have to make the effort to translate what you are saying into the frames of reference by which I interpret the world and the meaning of everything. I don’t necessarily hear exactly what you are saying, I hear what I think you are saying. How I interpret the world is strongly influenced by how I grew up and what my friends think and what kind of person I think I am. As James March, distinguished Stanford University Professor of Sociology and collaborator with Nobel prizewinner Herbert Simon in the study of organisations, puts it in his paper on Choice Theory[1], we ask what kind of situation is this, what would a person like me do in a situation like this and we do it.

There is a problem with the proposition. If the reason governments don’t take on board the recommendations of scientists is that scientists’ communication skills are poor we should expect to find that in other areas of public policy commonly held views are being acted on. Unless we are all poor communicators.

So is the proposition correct? No, it isn’t. Not entirely anyway. The conclusions of careful research and thinking in education, health, urban planning, housing, indigenous issues, even many aspects of economics aren’t adopted seriously either. The same for agriculture. And more. We can conclude the alternative proposition is valid the communications don’t matter: the recipients – the politicians (and the media) - already have their agenda and our views are not relevant. This is addressed in the related background essay]

Governments are attending to those who deluge them with propaganda, who have persuaded them to an agenda based on their political philosophy. Special interest groups representing sectional interests hire huge numbers of lobbyists and donate vast sums of money to support political parties and politicians in the expectation they will advance their own narrow causes. If necessary to the exclusion of others.
We should note this: in his Andrew Olle Memorial lecture in November 2012, distinguished journalist Mark Colvin referred to a story by Sally Jackson in The Australian showing figures which strongly indicated that the number of public relations professionals in Australia would match the number of working journalists by the end of the that year. Those people have one goal: increasing the credibility and influence of their clients to the exclusion of any contrary influences.
There is a real problem. Many of the conclusions of science, translated to government policy, threaten the agendas of many politicians and their supporters. For the media, the ongoing financial crisis in print media driven by the rise of social media such as Facebook, combined with the move to algorithm- driven news aggregation, not to mention “fake news”, only serves to amplify the already sceptical view of editors that science is too hard for the reader and not of primary interest. It takes too long for harried reporters to do justice to the story. That doesn’t justify uncritical acceptance of the media releases, common in some quarters.

There are unfortunately those in the media who still maintain that their primary offering is entertainment: wrong! And the same media can produce first class science programs in some of its programs but fail to check out the science when it comes to reporting ‘news’.

And there are many in the scientific community, and the STEM community more widely, who consider lobbying government to be a descent into propaganda, and somehow “unclean”.

Education and the Common Understanding

Despite all the considerable gains to society generally in every area of life, gains which mean longer life, greater opportunity and so on for almost infinitely more people than ever, a very substantial number of people have no interest in science, not least because they have become convinced by personal experience or reputation that it is all too difficult. In some cases that leads to rejection. They don’t have to understand it all to benefit from it, do they?

It is fair to say that in the past the teaching of science has often not resonated with students, unless they are already fascinated by it. It has often been a recitation of facts, disembodied from the human struggles by scientists as ordinary humans who just happen to have particular gifts and skills, a process which ignores the conflicts and the triumphs inherent in the enterprise, a process which to those who take the time, as in music or the arts or any other area of knowledge, can generate wonder and amazement and great pleasure.

It would be wrong to consider that the more than unfortunate situation is not being addressed but it would not be wrong to view the changing of that approach within schools to be unreasonably slow. There is plenty of first class research showing that engagement of students through ‘argumentation’, the active participation in discovery and discussion of it, produces significant gains. And there are some wonderful successes. Partnering with scientists boosts school students’ and teachers’ confidence in science. Failures in learning are not confined to science but are found in mathematics and history to mention but two. Such failures cannot simply be dismissed. 

None of that excuses politicians and others whose activities significantly involve science in maintaining that they need not exercise their proper responsibility to inform themselves. Once upon a time some politicians would make a special effort to inform themselves about such disciplines as economics after they left school: not anymore, well almost not.

It is not as if it is difficult: the numbers of books, films, tv and radio programs and magazines dealing with science generally and with specific disciplines is immense and of very high quality!

The Media’s Role & Distortions of Public Policy

The media plays an extraordinarily important role in informing the public and even determining the agenda: when it is all trivialised the consequences are severe. Deaths and starvation, armed conflict and natural disasters, the personal lives of those we respect and hate, are not entertainment. To treat them as such is irresponsible: programs like Media Watch and FactCheck try to ensure they are not. As do respected programs like the ABC Science Show, many other programs on public media such as the BBC and PBS and many reporters, some of whom put their lives on the line. But unfortunately, too much of the media functions, in situations of controversy as no more than a mouthpiece for those in power, even in democracies.

Public Policy Appropriated – Foreign Policy, Health and Education

There are a large number of instances, well documented, where actions taken by government were not in fact supported by the evidence and did not achieve what their advocates said would be achieved. And did not serve the interests of anyone but themselves and poorly at that.

The latest well known example in the international field is the decision by US President George W Bush to invade Iraq, action which British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to join as did Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The justification was that Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein had, and planned to deploy, weapons of mass destruction, even access to nuclear material. Large numbers of Iraqi citizens wanted Hussein’s removal and it was said would welcome the invaders with garlands. It was all nonsense and a hideous mistake. Almost a dozen inquiries have demonstrated that conclusively! Poor communication? Bush, Blair and Howard all denied they acted without due care and attention to the evidence. They lied.

Now consider the important policy areas like health and education. And economics. In all three cases the policies of government mostly ignore the best available evidence and bypass the intelligent debate, preferring instead populist approaches which pander to general opinion based on not much more than gossip. Unfortunately the media may play an important role in this. Similarly, business may adopt all kinds of behaviours which belie the message they promote of being essential to a modern democracy and economic advancement, even prosperity. I discuss this in a related essay.

The Principal Issues for Science

So we return to science. The principal science issues before the governments of most countries include climate change and associated issues of energy production, biodiversity and related issues of land care and marine conservation including fishing. Medical advances are extremely significant. Genomics and related fields are ones of rapid development. Understanding brain development challenges everything emerging from the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA.

Then a raft of issues of emerging technologies including disruptive technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence. Fields such as astronomy and interplanetary exploration variously capture imagination and the related fields such as quantum mechanics and complex systems including ‘big data’ and cybersecurity are increasingly to the fore. Cybersecurity threatens activities from communication systems to weaponry including submarines and aircraft.

There have been major achievements in science, more every year. Where teams of scientists have been involved in large scale projects such as the Large Hadron Collider run by CERN, interplanetary exploration and studies of quantum physics achievements have been spectacular. Just two examples.

The first detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) at two different sites in the US was announced in February 2016. The detection measured to 1/1000th of the radius of a proton the collision and coalescence which took place 1.3 billion years ago of two black holes, thirty-six and twenty-nine times the mass of our sun. That event occurred within a fraction of a second, with event horizons approximately ninety-three miles wide and produced a single black hole sixty-two times the mass of the sun.

A clinical trial held at Stanford University School of Medicine in mid-2016 injected modified human stem cells directly into the brains of several chronic stroke patients. The procedures were all successful with no negative effects described from the injection and only mild headaches as a result of the procedure, which was performed on mildly anesthetized patients. All 18 showed significant healing long after any healing is expected following a stroke (a period of six months). This included increased mobility and actually allowed for patients who were previously limited to wheelchairs to walk again freely.

An example of amazing advance of science is the exploration of the properties of graphene, one-atom thick carbon, technically an allotrope in the form of a two-dimensional, atomic scale, hexagonal lattice in which one atom forms each vertex. (Thank you Wikipedia)

These are indeed complex issues but all of them have huge implications for society. Which means governments must have an understanding of them and their possibilities and impacts on society and individuals. That surely leads to an appreciation of the importance of scientific research and understanding of the relative contribution of goal-directed or applied science and undirected or ‘pure’ research.

The evidence is that much of breakthrough science starts in government funded laboratories and not in private enterprise where the risk is too costly: business promotes the opposite view. That is notwithstanding that the majority of science expenditure occurs in the private sector. Recently though, in the US, there is evidence that science is becoming a private enterprise. Nevertheless, strong endorsement by government is important. Recall President Kennedy’s inauguration speech and the eventual expansion of interplanetary exploration including manned space flights and Barrack Obama’s championing of brain research. Scientific research remains strong in Europe: will it in the UK after Brexit?

Outside of some parts of the US, Europe and some other developed countries, governments are significantly less attuned than they should be. In Australia the support of science at every government level has been abysmal, with a few exceptions. Decades ago it was observed that it was unsurprising that there was no science policy: there was no economic policy! That remains the case today.

This is most obvious in the area of climate change, energy and biodiversity. Government ministers keep insisting that Australia is on target to achieve the reductions in carbon emissions agreed to at the Paris conference. The scientific evidence is that it is not! Is this due to poor communication? The answer is no. The volume of high quality literature concerning climate change is immense and the popular science communication of it is substantial, involving many economists. Supporters of the conclusions include some of the most outstanding minds alive today. Assertions that scientists are still disagreeing and that consensus is not science best practice is both right and wrong. Scientists agree which means it isn’t consensus: that would require some to accept the views even though they are unsure. They are sure.

Many politicians in various countries have made an effort to understand the science and the consequences. Many have not. Because they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to a different view, even that scientists advocating climate change as the major challenge of humanity at this time are simply pursuing self-interest. As if that is a behaviour not found in other areas of endeavour such as business and politics itself.

Scientific Research can threaten Government Agendas

The reason that science and the recommendations of science are not receiving the attention they deserve is in part because politically they are unpalatable, they threaten their world view, the policy positions of those who support them, in respect of climate change and energy futures, not least the business groups in energy production and related fields. It seems not relevant to some governments that coal and oil and gas exploration kill people, damage the environment, are heavily subsidised and could be easily replaced over time with little economic loss. All of which has been demonstrated time and again. Companies find it easier to keep their traditional business instead of adapt to the new business environment. They could after all redefine their business.

So far as politicians are concerned,  the ignorance mostly comes down to intellectual laziness. As persons responsible for the future of humanity they choose to let others decide for them. They abrogate their responsibilities. And they are not held to account. In a world where the word accountability is bandied about as if it is a cure all and the reason why the market works!
As to the media, much of the reason for less reportage than ought to occur can be traced to refusal by editors and proprietors to recognise that there is far greater interest and understanding among the general populace than is often claimed. The ABC TV Catalyst program gained, on average, an audience of half a million. Those determining media coverage are known to have similar biases about current affairs and are far too ready to portray political stories as if they were a sports contest, looking for winners rather than spelling out the content of the issues so understanding would be increased rather than prejudice reinforced.
Some fault does indeed lie with those communicating their science. Much of science is very complex and sometimes shrill voices are raised against those who try to explain it to those untrained in the discipline with accusations of over simplifying and dumbing down. Sometimes those who do lead in public understanding of science, people like Carl Sagan in the US, are isolated from the academy. That is entirely unhelpful.

But to see the complexity of science and assert poor communication of it as the reasons for it being ignored it is to put aside the vast amount of evidence and daily experience. That tells us we should be holding politicians to account for a great deal more than simply making pretty speeches in the parliament and promoting their often hollow triumphs.

And we should be demanding cohesive, focused leadership which articulates policies clearly based on evidence and which supports development of society and provides for each citizen to achieve their maximum potential, the philosophy of people such as economist Amartya Sen and many like him such as John Rawls. To brand that as socialism and reject it is simply narrow-minded.

To embrace narrow sectional interests that ignores issues of significant concern to others simply because they do not accord with the view which once were orthodox and excuse it as too complex is a recipe for conflict. The move from what has been democratic socialism or Keynesian economics to neoclassical economics and a conservative capitalism has had severe impacts on the less advantaged in the community. Addressing that is a responsibility for governments.

Governments have become more concerned about the impact of more activist sections of the community, such as groups concerned with the natural environment, urban development and so on, as well as others from the margins of society such as migrants and Indigenous peoples. Governments which promote themselves as a democratic nevertheless take various actions to minimise the impact, such as removing charity status, drastically reducing or eliminating government funding, extending this even to reducing the provision of legal aid for people seeking no more than the exercise of their rights as citizens in the face of organisations seeking to exploit them.

In the end these behaviours mean exposing the community to danger when it is the responsibility of government, a responsibility for which taxation is levied, to protect people. Governments may be prepared to spend vast sums on armaments and standing armies but do little to protect against disease, ignorance, discrimination and exploitation!

Achieving Influence means Political Action

As Hugh Mackay, writer and sociologist, says in his many books and talks, to achieve the good life means having a concern for others. He also says, on the basis of extensive research that the principal want of people generally is to be listened to. It is here that there is greatest challenge for politicians, those who say they intend to government for everyone but then favour a minority at the expense of the vast majority.

An important issue is for the scientific community to understand that what happens is a consequence of political action, alliance formation, pressure applied to those who make the decisions, to speak truth to power, as some would say. That is not intended to be patronising. It means convincing organisations which recognise and promote science to be visible. It also means forming alliances where necessary with more activist groups and others who subscribe to significant parts of the agenda. Environmental groups sometimes do this well.

It is not necessary to sacrifice integrity or the truth in order to form alliances but it is important to address the concerns of the potential allies. This is hardly rocket science. I am not advocating that individual scientists speak out on every issue they consider important in the name of the organisation for which they work. But through involvement with distinct organisations they can seek to have important issues brought to the fore.

The notion that scientists should not be involved in political action is naïve. At the same time there is every reason to study what groups in other disciplines and countries are doing and what they are achieving. It is unfortunately to recognise that sometimes those with most resources and energy prevail, at least in the short term. Yet there is hope: the campaigns for action on climate change, adoption of renewable energy, for limits to nuclear weapons, for conserving natural areas, all ones in which scientists have been active, have made gains. Important expensive research funded by governments in areas like quantum physics, astrophysics and interplanetary exploration, genomics and epigenetics continues.

Supporting effective communication of the important contribution that science makes is vital. Just as important is calling out for what they are, ie nonsense, such ridiculous assertions as many scientists simply seek government funding to help them become famous, so-called scientific facts are mere theories and the like! Pronouncements by people like former UK Education Secretary Michael Gove that we have had enough of experts are dangerous stupid rubbish. In this universities have a major responsibility: unfortunately their corporatisation in pursuit of the imposed requirement to generate their own funding has led to their unique goals being sacrificed

Preventing large scale political donations would help. So would greater transparency in Minister’s appointments and who are put on boards of government enterprises.

To accept the assertions of others just because it appeals to our preconceived views is irresponsible. At a personal level it doesn’t matter so much. At an official level people die.

[1] "Theories of Choice and Making Decisions", Society November-December 1982, pp 29-39.

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