A recent article in the prestigious scientific journal "Nature" made some valid, if unpalatable points (such as the fact that politicians usually see scientists as just another special interest group), but also made some frankly barmy suggestions about how to bridge the science/politics communication gap (such as the idea that scientists could get their message across by helping politicians in their election campaigns).
I believe that the real problem is a lack of understanding by politicians about how science works, and a corresponding lack of understanding among scientists about how politics works.
I am working to help remedy the deficiency, most recently at a meeting between scientists and politicians in Venice, held under the auspices of the International Risk Governance Council, to discuss how we can handle slowly changing risks with potentially catastrophic consequences.
I have now published my own letter in "Nature" (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v481/n7379/full/481029d.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20120105) outlining my conclusions about communication between scientists and politicians. The published letter (Nature Vol. 481 (2012) p.29) is edited for space. Here is my full original letter:
Re: Rees Kassen “If You Want to Win the Game, You Must Join In” Nature 453, December 8th (2011) p. 153 (http://www.nature.com/news/if-you-want-to-win-the-game-you-must-join-in-1.9580).
Rees Kassen offers some thoughtful ideas for better communication between scientists and politicians, but has omitted three important ones. These became especially clear during a recent international meeting of scientists, senior policy makers and politicians, held in Venice from August 24 - 26 under the auspices of the International Risk Governance Council, and concerned with effective planning for long-term risks.The points that emerged during our discussion were:
1) It is important for scientists to avoid over-claiming - for example, for the predictive accuracy of this or that particular model. One subtle form of over-claiming is to request more funding for basic research into a particular question. Long-term basic research is essential, and needs to be supported, but it is a fallacy to assume that fundamental research into a question will always provide an answer to that question. In fact, most significant technological advances are based on the answers to fundamental questions that had no foreseeable application to the technology in question (think quantum mechanics and the transistor, or the conductivity of gases and X-rays, to name just a couple).
2) It follows that the best bets to answer immediate, focused questions such as those posed by resource depletion, global warming, and ecosystem collapse are i) further development of known technologies &/or ii) novel juxtaposition of already established fundamental knowledge from different areas. In the latter case, governments should be putting more faith in the advice of interdisciplinary scientists with vision and the ability to bring apparently disparate fields together, rather than subject specialists who often have their own barrows to push.
3) Finally, scientists need to recognize and respect the agendas of politicians, and especially their need to win votes in the next election. Politicians will not be able to carry a long-term, scientifically-based policy through unless they retain power. Scientists who are urging long-term policies will do best if they can identify and suggest short-term, intermediate benefits for such policies.
These points may seem obvious, but practical experience shows that they are not so obvious. For the sake of our own and our planet’s future, they need to be addressed now.