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European Scientists Call For Greater Integrity, Openness, Clarity And Public Engagement

February 20, 2012

European-based speakers representing the fields of nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms, and harm reduction science in tobacco made the plea on 18 February at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Vancouver, Canada. The panelists, each with pertinent experience of real-life scientific support to policy-making, offered first-hand advice on best practices and pitfalls when architecting science policy on both sides of the Atlantic. The 18 February symposium, titled “Exploding Myths on Reactor Security, Harm Reduction, and Genetically Modified Organisms,” featured a call for greater integrity, openness, clarity and public engagement on difficult to communicate issues of global significance. A key message was that science and policy do have a crucial relationship. But scientists should not think that they are policy-makers. Equally, science must remain independent. ‘Bad science’ and spin must be challenged more. Science coming out of industry must be trusted more. The symposium was moderated by the Irish Chief Scientific Advisor and Champion of EuroScience Open Forum 2012, Professor Patrick Cunningham.

The four central recommendations and detailed consensus statement in annex reflect common findings when examining the seldom seen science behind some of today’s most controversial public policy issues, namely, nuclear energy, crop innovations (GMOs), and harm reduction (tobacco). Panelists asked: With approximately 65 nuclear plants under construction worldwide, Fukushima or not, why is it so difficult to separate fact from fiction on nuclear reactor safety and waste management solutions? With over 150 million hectares of biotech crops produced worldwide, what are the known and unknown implications of innovation in biotechnology and genetic engineering? With the World Health Organization predicting over 1 billion smoking-related deaths this century, isn’t tobacco harm reduction the greatest public health imperative today? Is the WHO’s quit or die message enough?

Accepting that societal problems are not necessarily problems with purely scientific solutions, speakers argued that calculated risks are fundamental to realizing proven benefits and that innovative science is ever more prevalent and important. They strongly urged the wider scientific community to think — and act — in the global interest, while pressing the re-set button for ‘evidence-based policy’ above ‘policy-biased evidence’. Keen not to assume that scientific consensus can exist or to frame issues as science versus the public with science in the right, the overriding consensus was that more needs to be done to guard against the misuse of science in policy-making.

Background

Organized by Brussels-based SciCom — Making Sense of Science, the symposium brought together prominent European scientists typically leading teams working towards science-led solutions that go to the heart of citizen priorities and concerns.

In addition to the Irish Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Patrick Cunningham, these included: former nuclear inspector and Director-General of the European Commission’s in-house science service, Dr. Roland Schenkel; the “GMO Detective” supporting EU-wide enforcement in food policy, Dr Guy van den Eede of the Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Health and Consumer Protection; and Dr David O’Reilly, Board Member responsible for Group Research & Development at British American Tobacco. Further discussants included science communication experts Dr Carl-Johan Sundberg of the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden and Hungarian science editor, Istvan Palugyai.

Scientists must sharpen their message and engage the public

The Vancouver discussions underscored how the role of scientific advice in policy-making worldwide is growing, the recent appointment of Scottish Professor Anne Glover to the new role of Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission being a case in point. Yet, governments face challenges in terms of how science is viewed and used with the trust gap between public perceptions and scientific realities widening.

Recent episodes, such as the Japanese tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster, the volcanic ash crisis in Europe, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the failed Russian Mars probe are prominent examples in the public eye. Yet, daily legislative decisions about the foods we eat, the forms of nicotine or tobacco we use, or how the energy we require is produced are just as important. Impartial policy-makers want to know the facts and receive independent advice. Yet, faced with claims and counter claims from interest groups – including science – this is not always obvious. And when the scientific evidence is ‘indisputable’, decision-making is often muddied by a constant information/misinformation battle-ground. Panelists framed this as a Cain and Abel contest between those supporting “evidence-based policies” (establish the science first, then inform the policy) versus those supporting “policy-biased evidence” (establish the policy first, then find the science to support it).

Speakers used thematic case-studies to explode popular myths about nuclear energy, crop innovations and tobacco harm reduction. The focus was less on the pros and cons of each, but more so on how the influence of science could be sharpened.

Dr Roland Schenkel, nuclear energy expert highlighted that: “Historically in debates on nuclear energy, the public plays the critical role in affecting policy. It’s a straight ‘for’ or ‘against’ issue. Yet, the evolutionary science behind reactor safety and waste management solutions is poorly explained”. He added: “A key role of science leaders today is to accurately inform the public and policy-makers and aid in their understanding of policy implications. The basic question for consumers is: how can I be sure that this energy source is safe? The basic question for scientists is: how can I untangle the basic facts from values and social and economic considerations?”

Dr David O’Reilly, harm reduction exponent stressed that: “It is right that science and scientists be guided by values of objectivity, integrity and transparency and that our work is continuously evaluated by our peers. Scientists, whether they work for the academic or corporate worlds, should seek to contribute to the scientific information that is so important to the formation of sound policy. And although challenging, scientists and politicians should avoid creating unnecessary angst as a means of motivating public support for particular science policies or indeed to obtain funding or votes.”

Dr Guy van den Eede, plant science expert commented that: “The evolution versus revolution debate in biotechnology and engineering often misses the profound interconnectivity between decades-long advances in science and addressing global challenges in climate, energy, agriculture and health”. He added: “The GMO story in Europe versus other regions of the world lays bare how government decisions are ultimately political with science just one element in decision-making”.

Dr Carl-Johan Sundberg, communications expert concluded that: “From the ripples of the Japanese nuclear disaster to a smoking cessation campaign in Australia or a GMO ban in Austria, information and misinformation are instant”.

Dr Istvan Palugyai, science journalist expert added: “The challenge for science journalists in an increasingly global knowledge society seems to be that if you can’t convince them, confuse them”.

Irish Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Patrick Cunningham, in summing up, said that: “In policy decisions, important factors beyond the reach of science are often involved: fear, hype, ignorance, profit, resentment, economic and political advantage. And science does not always have clear answers. However, science and scientists have a special claim to be heard, provided they are committed to:

    Integrity: to uphold the inherent honesty of scientific enquiry and debate
    Openness: to keep the lab door open, and making clear any special interests
    Clarity: to speak in terms the public can understand
    Engagement: to demonstrate that we take our duty to society seriously.”

He added: “At the same time, policymakers should encourage scientists to speak out even when their research or assessment may be unpopular. Scientists should learn to stand up, shout up and when necessary, shut up. The voice of the rational middle ground should be louder.”

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