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AAAS, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre Urge More Work to Engage the Public

Scientists must sharpen their message and do more to engage the public as they seek to influence policy on issues such as climate change, representatives of AAAS and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre said in report issued 3 July at the Euroscience Open Forum 2010 (ESOF2010) in Turin, Italy.

The report, summarizing an October 2009 workshop involving 21 high-profile science and technology policy experts from both sides of the Atlantic, urged scientists and policy-makers alike to defend the integrity of science while improving its ties with policy in an increasingly complex world.

The summary was released by Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS; Roland Schenkel, director-general of the Joint Research Centre; and Patrick Cunningham, the chief scientific adviser to the Irish government. The three participated in an ESOF session that reviewed both the opportunities and pitfalls of feeding science advice into policy making.

Leshner also spoke at another session on science without borders. More than 4,300 attendees from around the globe attended the biennial ESOF conference from 2-7 July, including about a dozen AAAS officers and staff. Peter Agre, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors, gave a plenary talk on his life as a scientist and his Nobel Prize-winning work on aquaporins. Albert Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs, met with young scientists in a “Pizza with the Prof” session. Representatives of EurekAlert! and the Science journals staffed exhibit booths. Briana Blaser, outreach project director for Science Careers, organized two workshops, including one with Ric Weibl, director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology.

Science meets policy. Alan I. Leshner of AAAS (left) and Roland Schenkel of the Joint Research Centre talk about infusing science into decision-making.

Despite what many scientists consider an improved climate for science under the administration of President Barack Obama, Leshner noted in the 3 July session that science still has an uneasy relationship with the larger society, partly of its own making. Stories about scientific misconduct and conflicts of interest in biomedical research erode public confidence in science, he said.

But there are other tensions over which science has less control, including conflicts involving core values or beliefs on topics such as teaching of evolution in the schools, embryonic stem cell research, and the study of human sexual behavior. Science offers facts about the natural world, Leshner said, and some of those facts—such as the likely impact of human-caused climate change—may be inconvenient or in conflict with core values or religious beliefs.

“The purpose of science is to tell you the truth, whether you like it or not,” Leshner said. But he acknowledged that simply telling the facts does not mean scientists will win the policy battle. More attempts at public education on divisive topics may be unavailing.

“The problem is not that they don’t understand it,” Leshner said. “They understand it, and they don’t like it.” Science may reveal aspects of the natural world, such as the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperature, but if policy makers or members of the public don’t like the finding, he said, “they are totally free to ignore it.”

The solution? Scientists can try to find some common ground through efforts at public engagement, Leshner said, but the process is not easy. It requires a more assertive strategy to communicate not only to but with the public and policy makers. Above all, the engagement should be “glocal,” Leshner said. The issue may have global meaning, but efforts to influence policy can be most successful when aimed at local communities and officials.

Roland Schenkel recounted a successful example of such public engagement in Sweden’s handling of its nuclear waste issue. Half of the nation’s electric power is generated by a dozen nuclear reactors at three sites. Sweden developed a competition to determine the site of a deep underground repository for its nuclear waste, Schenkel said. Feasibility studies between 2002 and 2007 selected two sites.

“The Swedes have actually, as Alan phrased it, engaged with the public,” Schenkel said. Authorities did not “try to tell them what they should know,” he said. “They have actually started a dialogue on all levels” to find compromise solutions. The result, Schenkel said, is very strong local support at the selected site. That approach, he said, “is what needs to be done in many more countries.”

Lively lessons. Leshner and Schenkel share a laugh with their audience.

On another science policy issue, Schenkel described the intense debate over use of biofuels for transport in Europe, which has set a target of 10 % of transport fuel use by 2020, corresponding to 30 millions tons annually of biofuels. There are numerous uncertainties and competing interests, he said, including questions on the economics of biofuels versus gasoline, the challenge of sustainably producing biofuels while avoiding soil degradation, and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizers used in the production of biofuel crops.

“We are not at the end of the debate,” Schenkel said, and some scientists have argued that the production targets are unrealistic. Still, he said, efforts by scientists to explore the complexities of the topic have “found a very open ear” of policy-makers. “They understand the issues,” he said. The interaction with scientists has made the policy-makers more open to funding additional research to resolve some of the scientific uncertainties.

In another case cited by Schenkel, the absence of risk assessment studies left European policy-makers unprepared for the aftermath of recent Icelandic volcanic eruption. “The essential message was there was no available risk assessment which could permit the policy-maker to really react based on scientific evidence,” Schenkel said. Without solid studies on the acceptable amounts of ash particles in the flight path of airliners or the impact of the material on jet engine components, he said, policy-makers “were virtually forced to take the precautionary principle” and ground thousands of flights for days.

The underlying message from his case studies, Schenkel said, is that responses from the scientific community must be timely, tailored to the needs of policy-makers, and understandable to lay persons. He agreed with Leshner that the public plays a crucial role in shaping the decisions by policy-makers.

“Government decisions are ultimately political, and we have to accept that science is just one element under consideration,” Schenkel said. “The scientific community needs to be more proactive, the policy-making community needs to be more receptive to scientific evidence and engage more in public dialogue.”

In a sober appraisal of the limits of science in the policy arena, Leshner noted that scientists have no choice but to stick to the facts. “Science shows something and we’re stuck with what it says,” he said. The beliefs of policy-makers and members of the public can be more tenuous, he said. “They are free to distort or deny science, with relatively little immediate consequence.”

What should be done if advice based on sound science is ignored? “You voice the protest once and then you shut up,” Leshner said, “and realize that they were elected and you weren’t.”


Read the full report, “Evidence-Based Policy Versus Policy-Biased Evidence: The Challenge of Feeding Scientific Advice into Policy-Making.”

Read a summary of the report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC).

Read more about the October 2009 dialogue in Ispra, Italy, involving representatives of AAAS and the JRC.


Earl Lane

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