Valuing the public in science advice

Citizens need to play a role in determining science and technological futures.  Photo by Trey Ratcliff
Citizens need to play a role in determining science and technological futures. Photo by Trey Ratcliff

We need a strong scientific voice in policy and decision-making, but there is also a crucial role for the public, writes Heather Douglas.

There is now a growing consensus about the importance of science advice in government. Although there are occasional departures from this position, such as the current situation in Canada, the idea that science is important for both diagnosing and dealing with public policy issues is widely acknowledged.

This week’s Auckland conference has brought together science advisers from all over the world to discuss the opportunities and challenges of the role. My hope for the conference is that it will grapple directly and clearly with a complex challenge at the heart of science advice: that no advice is ever fully value-free, that science advice must nevertheless exhibit integrity, and that science advice, at the end of the day, must still be accountable to the public.

Why can’t science advice be value-free? We might hope that science advice consists of clear, incontrovertible scientific facts that avoid contamination by values. But the nature of science shows this desire to be illusory. Science is a body of knowledge – our most reliable – that is continually open to evidential challenge.

As such, we never have complete evidence or complete certainty for our scientific claims. We have better or worse evidence, better or worse supported theories. Anytime we need to make a scientific claim, we have to decide, is the evidence enough in this case? Do we know enough to make a particular claim now?

How do we decide how much is enough? Based on values, in particular the value of the impacts of making the wrong choices.

Consider climate change. What are the consequences of accepting anthropogenic climate change and acting on that knowledge, if we do so prematurely and the theory is wrong (a false positive)? Conversely, what are the consequences of rejecting the theory of anthropogenic climate change, and not acting to prevent its acceleration, if the theory is true (a false negative)? One’s valuation of these different choices influences how much evidence is enough to accept the theory of climate change.

At this point in time, we have so much evidence for anthropogenic climate change, and so little uncertainty, that one has to have a perverse set of values (for example, extreme concerns over government interventions in energy markets, or over the health of fossil fuel industries, coupled with little concern over the various impacts of climate change) to still find the remaining uncertainties worth paying attention to. But a value judgment of some kind is needed to make the decision about evidential sufficiency in any particular case.

This means that science advice cannot be value-free, if it is to say anything advisory. Indeed, because value judgments (employed across the scientific community) also shape what problems scientists pursue and what we have evidence about, science is doubly inflected by values.

This does not mean that science advice should be ideologically driven. Science advisors must still act with integrity, with the proper respect for the available evidence. They should avoid cherry picking the evidence or manufacturing politically amenable views. It is only through concern with evidential sufficiency, and the uncertainties involved, that values enter into judgments. And advice should never be a private affair in a democratic system – the public has a right to know the nature of any substantial advice given.

Because there are values embedded in the advice, the public also has a potential legitimate role to play in the generation of advice. The public can have input on the range of possible concerns that need to be researched, and the strength of evidence thought to be sufficient for a piece of advice.

Mini-publics, constructed to create a representative population, can be created, so as to avoid the problems of politically charged forums, or the demands that everyone have a say (which can be a stalling tactic). Stakeholders can also be consulted on the kinds of issues the topic of concern generates, so that the charge cannot be made that a crucial issue has been left unaddressed.

How to do all this in practice needs to be tailored to the particular political cultures of each local context. But just as public policy without scientific input is folly, so too is policy shaped by a technoscientific elite without public input. Such input is crucial for ensuring that the science addresses public concerns with technological applications and for ensuring that the balancing of risks and benefits inherent in any advice is acceptable. There is a need for a strong scientific voice, but there is also a crucial role for the public.

Heather Douglas is the Waterloo Chair in Science and Society in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author ofScience, Policy and the Value-Free Ideal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)