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S. James Gates, Jr.: Putting Evidence to Work for Policymakers

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During a plenary lecture, S. James Gates, Jr. said scientists can enhance the adoption of evidence-based policy by forming long-term relationships with political partners.  | Atlantic Photography

BOSTON – Although scientists often are urged to share their expertise with policymakers, the idea that evidence should drive policy is not always accepted, said physicist and policy adviser S. James Gates, Jr.

Gates, a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) and 2013 recipient of the National Medal of Science, noted that science has returned enormous benefits to nations that invest in it. But the link between scientific evidence and economic and social gains is not necessarily respected or understood, he said.

“We are clearly going into a period of time in which the general public is no longer willing to accept authority on its face, where many citizens feel that their opinions are equal to the years of study that scientists in various areas have conducted,” said Gates in a plenary address at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting on 19 February.

But the work of groups like PCAST, he suggested, serves as an excellent example of how research and evidence can be brought to bear on economic, technological and social problems.

Under the direction of President Obama and his scientific adviser John Holdren, the advisory group looked for places where “science and technology might be a lever to move our country to a higher level of efficiency and to benefit more citizens,” said Gates.

He cited reports issued by PCAST during his time on the council as examples of the far-reaching impact of the group. A report on prospects for advanced manufacturing, for instance, was commissioned in part to find ways to expand job prospects in the wake of the country’s great recession. Another report recommended a technical solution, based on internet packet networks, to divvy up the government-held electromagnetic spectrum to accommodate the broadband needs of rapidly expanding technologies like smart phones.

A third report, released last year, examined the scientific validity behind forensic comparative evidence such as DNA, hair samples, latent fingerprints and bite marks. Although the report proved controversial to law enforcement authorities, Gates said it was important to show that the evidence recommended to juries represent the state of the science.

Scientists can be unique advisers because they pay as much attention to error and uncertainty as they do to established fact, Gates explained. Their insistence on evidence and testing is an important part of what they can offer policymakers. They “should not check those principles at the door” when they work on policy issues, he said.

As a person who has moved for decades between the worlds of research science and science policy, Gates has watched some of his scientific colleagues flounder when it comes to getting their messages across to politicians.

The key to creating evidence-based policy, he said, is for researchers to build long-term relationships with political partners and to put some of their research intellect into solving the problem of how best to tell the story of what science can offer to everyone.

[Associated image: Atlantic Photography]