Columns Indian Scenario

Bringing together science and governance

Debaleena Basu

Session in progress at the science policy training workshop
Session in progress at the science policy training workshop   (Photo: IISER Pune)

At the intersection of science and policymaking lies an uncertain ground for scientists. While being adept at formulating hypotheses and producing well-researched evidence, most scientists have a poor understanding of how policymaking works. The ambiguity is further amplified by the lack of good communication channels between scientists and policy makers. As the world surges ahead on scientific knowledge, expertise, and achievements, it is imperative that scientists, with their understanding of science and its impact on society, share a bigger role in influencing public decision-making and policy processes. 

Aiming to familiarise science professionals with the process of policymaking, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune, in association with the British Council, organised a three-day introductory workshop on science policy for women scientists from 31 March - 2 April 2016. Jason J Blackstock and Carla-Leanne Washbourne from the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) at University College, London, conducted the workshop along with Chris Tyler, Director of the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST), UK. The attendees were a diverse group: they included doctoral students and post-doctoral associates from a variety of disciplines, scientists associated with policymaking, entrepreneur enthusiasts, and teaching associates. 

The workshop started with an overview of the decision-making process and the roles scientists can play within that framework. All three instructors of the workshop had pursued advanced science degrees before transitioning to science policy and it was very informative to hear about their journeys. The first gap between the scientific method and policymaking was demonstrated when the participants were asked to frame India’s ‘grand challenges’. The responses ranged from healthcare, inequality, and education to sustainable development, environment, and agriculture. The subsequent exercise of narrowing the list down to three was a struggle, showing how difficult it is to reach a consensus on most issues. “Policy decisions are widely debated”, said Blackstock, “and as scientists gather evidence, we often forget that scientific consensus is not enough to make policymakers agree on a decision; there are other factors involved.” He added that science, however, was the driving force of Europe’s development and evidence-based policies are the only sustainable way forward, thus the need for scientific input in policymaking.

Elaborating on the need for a good scientific advisory system, Tyler spoke on the science policy structure in the UK. The current reforms in the system were largely brought about by the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis—the late eighties saw the outbreak of a new disease on cattle, BSE or mad cow disease. In the face of scientific uncertainty on whether the disease could spread to humans, the government claimed that no risks were involved. This stand was maintained until 1996 when the government had to admit that a new fatal human disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), was caused by exposure to BSE, and British beef was banned worldwide. “At the time of the crisis, the lines of communication between policymakers in the government and scientists were weak. Since the BSE crisis, there has been a complete overhauling of the system, and today, UK has one of the best and most proactive science advisory committees in the world,” remarked Tyler.

The policy cycle

Washbourne stressed that when advising policymakers, unless scientists give representation to all narratives irrespective of personal preference, they stand to lose objectivity and legitimacy. Along with unbiased presentation of data, brevity should be emphasised—a busy minister usually has only a few minutes to spare amidst other commitments. Only information relevant to the policymakers should be presented concisely. Often, policymakers get frustrated with scientists for not able to give a quick, simple answer, whereas scientists find this to be unreasonable. 

This dilemma became more evident when the participants had to design, analyse, and present mock policies for a real-life case scenario. First, the participants were familiarised with the basics of policy design. Scientific advisors cannot limit themselves to evaluating scientific evidence alone while delineating a policy; the social, economic, cultural and political aspects of the issue have to be factored in to formulate a policy which is feasible and can be implemented.

The first evening was then spent in frenzied activity, with participants trying their hand at crafting the best possible policy to solve the given problem, taking into account the various socio-economic factors and the effects on stakeholders. Day 2 started with student scenario presentations wherein each group addressed a specific member of the government or civil society, condensing all the previous day’s research into a measly five minutes. It was an uphill challenge for most that effectively delineated the nuances and challenges involved when working in scientific policymaking. The presentations and the following discussions further demonstrated why effective communication of scientific evidence to policy and decision making audiences is of paramount importance.

Contemporary knowledge systems

After the exercise on policy design, the instructors introduced the participants to the concept of ‘contemporary knowledge systems’. The interface between science and public decision-making was broken down into ‘Science for Policy’ and ‘Policy for Science’ systems. The system in the UK was described in detail: scientific advisors and the parliamentary office of science and technology directly give scientific input to public policymakers (Science for Policy) and the research councils and higher education funding bodies allocate budgetary funds for research endeavours (Policy for Science). Lively debates followed on the distribution of funds for basic and applied or innovation research, once again reiterating how difficult it is to reach a consensus amidst a diversity of opinions.

The participants then looked up on India’s knowledge system landscape, particularly pertaining to the subject area of their research. This exercise helped everyone learn about the ‘Policy for Science’ structure in India—many were previously unaware of the full ministerial hierarchy—and clarified how the research output in each domain contributes to the development of public policy. 

The workshop also had two special sessions focusing on the Indian science policy scenario. LS Shashidhara, Professor & Chair (Biology) and Dean (Research & Development), IISER Pune, spoke about the development of science policy in India. “Alongside researchers and academicians, there will be growing demand for scientists who must be engaged in other roles that will benefit the science community overall,” he said on his motivation for organising the workshop. He pointed out that scientific advice for policymaking in India is still done in a somewhat ad-hoc manner and needs to develop into a proactive system. Amita Sharma, former secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), shared her experiences of working in policymaking; it was especially insightful to hear about the process from someone who has a wealth of knowledge about developing national policy. Some of the policies she spearheaded are still active and to hear the arduous history of each was illuminating. Her talk connected with everyone and gave the participants a glimpse into the mechanism of policymaking in the country.

Shashidhara had envisioned this workshop to be a primer of sorts to initiate scientists into the field of policy making. The instructors reaffirmed the need for more scientists to get involved in policymaking and improve the process with their scientific input, motivating the participants to consider careers at the crossroads of cutting-edge science and high-value public policy. At the end of three days, the motley group left the gates of IISER Pune as fledging policymakers—they had learnt a lot about a little known area and were keen to explore further.

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