How Science Informs the Decisions of Government

By Keough, Kevin | Canadian Journal of Public Health, March/April 2002 | Go to article overview

How Science Informs the Decisions of Government


Keough, Kevin, Canadian Journal of Public Health


THE THIRD AMYOT LECTURE

It is a distinct honour and pleasure to address what I believe is central to good governance: how science informs the decisions ofgovernment. This topic is underscored in how Dr. Amyot approached his work in the service of the public health of this country. Amyot was a physician and surgeon, distinguished as a practitioner and university lecturer. He also served the country with distinction in our medical services overseas during the First World War. But, above all, Amyot was devoted to, if not downright fanatical about, the public health of Canadians. At the first Canadian conference on medical services held in 1925, he noted in his remarks that "Since 1900, I have spent every hour of the twentyfour thinking of public health." His promotion of water filtration and chlorination, and milk pasteurization saved innumerable lives.

Amyot's persistent drive for better public health was based on sound science, and he was proud of his own contributions to that science. At that first conference he also noted "Public health, that branch of medicine which looks towards the prevention of disease, has made immense progress in the last few years since we have had certain scientific facts upon which we can base our action."

A brief history of science advice for government

For millennia, rulers and governments have called upon wise men who understood (or were thought to understand) the dynamics of the natural world and its social implications to advise them on the creation of policy and laws, and on decisions of national importance. In some cases, these advisors were little more than soothsayers whose advice was founded more in superstition than in science. In other cases, advisors were individuals who were rigorous in their analysis and logic, such as Aristotle, who was the science advisor to Alexander the Great.

As the pace of scientific discoveries escalated, so too did the impact of science on states and their peoples. Continual improvement in time keeping, the discovery of gunpowder, the discovery of the laws of mechanics, the invention of the steam engine, and the discovery of the cause of infectious disease - these and other advances changed peoples' lives and the rules under which they were governed.

By the 15th century, universities in Europe had become an important source of science advice for government. For example, Isabella of Spain relied heavily on the faculty of the University of Salamanca for advice on scientific issues. Isabella consulted the faculty on Columbus' proposition that he could reach the Orient by sailing west. The faculty took the position that: they knew the world was round; they had determined that Columbus would never be able to sail that far; so they "advised" Isabella not to fund the voyage. This may have been the original "you can't get there from here" response. As the story was told to me by colleagues in Salamanca, it was a merchant courtier who convinced Isabella to fund the voyage, arguing that she had little to lose. If Columbus disappeared, she would lose only a small financial stake, but if he made it to the Orient there were great opportunities for trade. You may be thinking "so much for that bit of science advice"... but you know, the faculty were right. Columbus never did get to the Orient.

As early as the 17th century, there were government-sponsored science works. Charles IT created the Greenwich Observatory and the position of Astronomer Royal, whose role was to perform science. Unfortunately, that role didn't always include providing science advice the Astronomer Royal was at times discouraged from "speaking his mind".

By the 17 th century, a new source of sound independent science advice became available to governments with the creation of learned societies such as the Royal Society in Britain (1660) and the Academie des sciences in France (1666). Other countries followed - prominent among them was the United States where Lincoln created the National Academy of Science in 1863. …

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