Adopted from an opening speech I gave for the first Cambridge University Science Policy Exchange Forum in April 2018
I want to share with you, and in particular with the early career researchers in the room, a few things that I have learned throughout my involvement in CUSPE and through my interaction with policy makers in particular;
First, science should be communicated broadly, continuously.
Science depends on public money, affects policy decisions, and offers benefits, and risks, to society. Scientists have a social responsibility to focus on the external broader community as much as on the internal scientific community.
Scientists often don’t share publically what they do, and seem to have adversity to sales-like behaviour. But the truth is we are all selling all the time; we sell ourselves to get a fellowship or grant, we sell our work to get into the best journal in our field. We need to create an environment where it also is accepted and encouraged to share our thoughts, ideas, and findings, and to explain why they are important. Do write your papers, communicate clearly about your methods and results so that others can take your work forward, but also spend some time on capturing what you did in a blog, or a quirky tweet.
Second, it is not easy to communicate science to an audience that is not familiar with the scientific method.
The scientific method involves making hypotheses, predicting logical consequences should these hypotheses be true, and carrying out experiments to proof, or disproof, these predictions. To be understood, it is crucial that scientists not only do efforts to explain their findings, but also take the time to clarify the method they use. While the science community almost anonymously agrees that climate change is real, it also anonymously agrees that there are great uncertainties on the data available. This distinction is difficult to capture by the general public, and it is exactly this difficulty that has been exploited to fuel climate change denial. General education in the scientific method could help avoid such confusion, and we can all do more efforts to explain how we think and how we work, to our partners, to our parents, to our friends.
Third, scientific evidence has limitations when it comes to advising policy.
Even when the scientific community agrees, or the scientific evidence is clear- cut, the existence of a piece of evidence does not linearly lead to new policy. Policy makers, in addition to evidence, have to take into account the public opinion on a policy as well as its deliverability. It is important for scientists, when they approach policy makers, to engage in this interaction with realistic expectations. To a policy maker, the evidence delivered by a scientist is one piece of information that can assist in the decision making process, rather than the Holy Grail that singlehandedly defines the policy. The information that we deliver is certainly valued, but we have to see it for what it is.
Fourth, being educated in the scientific method can be extremely valuable in a broad range of careers.
Although we need skilled people to push the boundaries of our knowledge, and continue to deliver new pieces of scientific evidence, it is desirable to have people educated with the scientific method distributed over our society. Out of 200 PhDs graduating in the UK, seven will become permanent research staff, and only one will become a professor. This might sound cynical, especially if we assume that all 200 aspire to be that one professor. However, what a PhD training teaches you, more than anything, is a method to approach problems, a way of thinking that can be applied much broader. Don’t focus exclusively on a career in academia, explore your options, approach any diversion from the academic career path as a positive decision, and remember that it is the rule rather than the exception. We must move away from the myth that leaving academia equals failure. It doesn’t, your skills are valuable in industry, in consultancy, in policy.
And fifth, being able to inform policy is very much about establishing relationships.
A wise man at the European Commission once reminded me, quoting Jeff Bezos’ speech at Princeton; ‘It is harder to be kind than to be clever, cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.’ What he meant is that being nice often is more important than being right. Be kind to the people you interact with. Every person could become a valuable connection in your network, and your network will ultimately define the influence you exert. Informing policy only seldom happens through delivery of evidence in a single interaction. It is much more likely that policy makers will take into account the information they have picked up at several occasions, before they even knew they would need it, and by a person they either trust, or that was recommended to them by a trustee.
I invite you to take the first steps in establishing relationships today; talk to your colleagues, engage with the people around you, ask questions. And by all means, be kind to each other.
First delivered verbally at 2018 CUSPE Forum in April 2018