Are politicians really guided by science?

How does science reach governments and politicians? It's not a transparent process...
18 May 2020

Interview with 

Jana Bacevic, University of Cambridge


Houses of parliament


It’s all very well publishing science for the general public, or other scientists - but how does that information reach governments and political leaders? Here in the UK, as in other countries, that process is a little mysterious - involving advisory groups such as SAGE, the ‘Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’. SAGE is chaird by Chief Scientific Adviser to the government Sir Patrick Vallance...

Patrick - What we don't give advice on is precise policy decisions. Those are decisions which ministers must take. What we try to do is to come down to what we think is two or three options. I doubt we've ever gone and given a single option, we're more likely to have said, "here are the range of things".

Cambridge University sociologist Jana Bacevic explained to Chris Smith and Phil Sansom what this means...

Jana - What Patrick is saying happens there is that scientific advisory groups do not come up with policies, so they do not decide what the government is going to do. They provide the government with the necessary scientific basis, so with the evidence, that can help guide their decisions about what is going to happen; but they do not make those decisions themselves, of course.

Chris - That does mean of course you're then shifting the decision making onto people who aren't necessarily scientists. So is that not necessarily or potentially a flaw in the process? If I say, "well I'll give you five options, here's what you can choose from," how do we know that the politicians then are actually going to make the right choice?

Jana - Well, I think that's in a manner of speaking the mother of all questions. On the one hand, under a democratic system where the government is accountable to the public, this is obviously a good thing precisely because politicians are elected. So in that sense, the public can hold them to scrutiny. Scientists are in fact not elected to make decisions, so it is good that they shift decision making onto politicians. Of course, under conditions of emergency and especially public health emergencies, this process becomes both quicker and often less transparent than the usual. So in that sense, what the government aims to do often is to claim that science is guiding these decisions, often in part in order to argue that they themselves are not taking these decisions.

Chris - I'm glad you brought that up because that's been very visible here, isn't it? We're being told the government follow the science, they're having daily press conferences where they actually wheel out their most senior scientists, and they're saying these people will answer questions from members of the public. So in some respects that does appear to be transparent and good, but where they're being criticised is that when they then do make the decisions, we're not being told how they're making those decisions.

Jana - Exactly. That is one of the things that have been brought up as obvious faults of this process. I think the other element is, the government has not been quite transparent about how they have come to adopt specific kinds of scientific advice. Because as the chief scientific adviser has said, normally scientific advisory groups tend to inform the government in terms of what would be the outcomes of certain measures; but then what is the government being led by when they decide which measures to adopt is not entirely clear.

Phil - Do you think that in general they might have already made up their mind, and will then pick whichever one best justifies that decision?

Jana - I think again, under conditions of emergency, the politicians are more likely to already have an idea concerning what is it that they might want to do. And they're driven by a number of factors. Some of these factors concern the economy; some of these factors concern estimates about what is likely to win popular approval or support; they're often guided by foreign policy concerns; and so on and so forth. So even if they do not have a clear idea of what is it they might want to do, they almost always have a clearer idea about what things are entirely off the table or out of the question. So in that sense they are guided by their own policy preferences, certainly.

Phil - What about this idea that there's this difficulty in communicating when you try and translate between a scientist and a policymaker. Is that something that might be making the science go a bit astray?

Jana - Absolutely. I think one of the things that tend to happen in science-policy communication is that scientists tend to be very cautious about giving advice. And that is in part, of course, because the reality is complex, and because it is usually very difficult for them to predict things with a high degree of certainty. Politicians on the other hand tend to value and privilege advice that seems to give clear indicators of what outcomes of specific policy decisions are going to be. So in that sense, scientists always err on the side of caution, and politicians prefer to have clear data and clear advice that would also give them sufficient grounds for policymaking. But on the other hand, that will also give them sufficient reasons to say, "there was no other way for us to act" or "there was no reason for us to act differently".

Phil - What things can we actually do to address some of these problems?

Jana - This might well seem like an unresolvable problem right? Because on the one hand we are talking about a dialogue or conversation between science and politicians, and that conversation should also involve the public. On the other hand, we are talking about extreme situations. But then I think one of the ways in which this could be solved in the longer run is really to make the science-policy nexus more transparent and more open to the public. What does this mean? On the one hand, the composition of expert panels should be open; so the information about expert panels, who is on them, how they make decisions, how these decisions are communicated with policymakers, should be transparent. On the other hand, politicians also need to start being more accountable to the public. So they should come out in the open and say why is it that they chose to act on certain kinds of advice and not on other kinds of advice.

Phil - So rather than just, "we've been following the science", you'd like to see, "here's what we've actually been listening to and here's why we've made that decision".

Jana - Exactly. And I think another thing that really needs to change is this whole 'follow the science' idea or concept. When you look at it, what it's actually signalling is "we are not leading". Because if someone follows, clearly they are also not leading. So in that sense it's a way of avoiding responsibility. I think that that needs to change, because I think it needs to be completely clear that when politicians make decisions, they should be able to be held accountable.


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