Science in the Public Interest: Do No Harm



Photo by Denise Krebs

By Aidan Gilligan, Founder & CEO of SciCom

Aidan contributed this article as part of our call for blogposts on conference themes. Submit your blogpost:

Having worked for ten years as a specialist communications contractor and direct employee at the headquarters of the European Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre and its sister Directorate-General, Research & Innovation, I decided to try something new where I could make a real difference on the issues that concern me most. Harm reduction science is one of these. I’m no scientist or expert, but I know what the general public is interested in and want to pay their taxes for. Life and death is certainly one of them.

I had worked on EU-funded research events for years, focusing on topics ranging from mitigating natural disasters and launching hydrogen fuel testing facilities, to R&D Investment Scoreboards. You name it, we had seen it and done it – or at least claimed to have partially funded it. But had we ever made a discovery that really mattered? Were we interested in the big killers, those lifestyle-related killers that are preventable? Were we too busy testing food ladles from China or chasing pie-in-the-sky nuclear energy projects? Had we lost sight of what really mattered? I thought so, so I decided to be different.

SciCom – Making Sense of Science was born on 1st January, 2011 ( It practises a brand of science diplomacy that adds essential value to the activities undertaken by science or trade ministries, the science services of international institutions or the flagship delivery teams of global conferences. Scientific integrity is core to its corporate identity. Within its network, it can reach out to and assemble unrivalled expertise around issues that very often divide the scientific community. It does not lobby or trade on its associations or try to influence the science it is simply helping to communicate.

On 28th & 29th June, 2012, in Brussels, SciCom convened twenty-seven eminent European, African and American-based thought-leaders from fifteen countries. All were carefully selected and approached at the highest level to guarantee a maximum pool of relevant expertise, perhaps never before brought together in a single room.

The event format was equally novel and designed to produce new thinking. Small working groups of five participants were pre-assigned under a Discussion Lead. Their task was to address a specific science-policy question before coming to Brussels. The five pivotal questions were:

  1. What should we expect from the scientific community?
  2. What are the factors taken into account by the policy-making community?
  3. What needs to improve from the perspective of third-parties and interest groups?
  4. How should scientists, policy-makers and third-parties work together to manage risks and uncertainties at the same time as promoting innovation?
  5. What needs to happen next?

The aim was to encourage real engagement between individuals who might otherwise find themselves and their organisations on different sides of the fence. The common thread was identifying best practices and pitfalls based on real-life experiences.

Our 15 key findings and recommendations were:


1. Science is a fundamental pillar of knowledge-based societies.

2. Science can help provide the evidence base for sound public policy;

3. The dialogue between science and policy is never straight-forward;


4. The integrity of science needs to be positively asserted;

5. Stronger emphasis must be given to the inclusion of social sciences to improve understanding of how the public may react or adapt;

6. Scientists must learn to use established communication channels for providing policy advice more effectively and be less aloof and perhaps less arrogant;


7. Policy-makers must be receptive to scientific advice, even when this advice is uncomfortable;

8. For the science and policy relationship to work, policy-makers have to challenge science to deliver on their public investment;

9. Policy-makers should consult more widely and learn from best practices and pitfalls encountered elsewhere;


10. The public plays a critical role in determining what positions policy-makers will take;

11. Industry is the largest investor in science and has every right to have its voice heard;

12. Interest groups similarly have every right to have their voice heard as guardians of the common good or legitimate sectoral interests;


13. Scientific advice must be more involved in all stages of the policy-making cycle, particularly in harm reduction;

14. Policy-making must learn to cope with the speed of scientific development and include greater foresight and policy anticipation;

15. Investment in harm reduction science is “the right thing to do”.

My overriding impression of this initiative is that science and policy do have a crucial relationship. But all too often EU officials and scientists think they are policy-makers. On the other side, policy-makers should not think they are scientists.

The greatest single mistake I see is that both groups fall into the trap of thinking that constant negative messaging on the harm caused by lifestyle choices is readily understood or sinks in. Look at the case of Europe’s first smoking ban in Ireland. Nearly ten years on and the Irish Chief Medical Officer’s 2012 Report shows a 3-4% total Irish population increase. The public know that these bad habits kill them but they still do it. Why? To arrive at an answer, we need to know more about brain reward systems and compulsive behaviour.

And that’s exactly what our second high level event tackled. But more on that in the next article.

Aidan Gilligan is the Founder & CEO of SciCom – Making Sense of Science. He is also a Euroscience Governing Board Member. Email: [email protected]

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