Take Cover: Mixing Science and Politics Can Be Explosive

Times Higher Education, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Take Cover: Mixing Science and Politics Can Be Explosive


Successful policymaking alliances are achievable if academics and politicians stick to their own strengths, says Keith Humphreys

If you were constructing a new house, you would reasonably expect the architect and the engineer to collaborate. Each has distinct and valuable knowledge without whose application the finished building is likely to be seriously flawed.

Yet in the construction of public policy, most people are pessimistic that productive collaboration between politicians and academic experts can occur. This is particularly true in drug policy formation. Some scientists grumble - as David Nutt did when he was sacked in 2009 as chair of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs - about being ignored. Meanwhile, some politicians are infuriated when scientists present evidence that current policies are ineffective.

It need not be this way. Successful policymaking partnerships between academics and politicians are possible if, as in a happy marriage, each party appreciates the strengths and limitations of the other.

A small number of politicians are also accomplished scientists, but, in general, politicians and academics have different claims to authority. Politicians rise to their positions because voters elect them to exercise power over public policy; academic scientists rise to theirs by being accomplished scholars. Sometimes, each craves the authority of the other and is tempted to act as if it were theirs. For example, I once unsuccessfully advised a US politician who had moral objections to programmes that provided clean syringes to injection drug users in order to reduce infectious disease transmission. I told her that she was entitled to make a moral argument because she had, after all, been elected on that basis. But I asked that she stop buttressing that argument by repeating the verifiably false claim that syringe exchange programmes cause people to become intravenous drug users. However, she flatly refused to acknowledge that, as a trained scientist, I understood the relevant data better than she did. She went on spreading that untruth, and never consulted me again.

For their part, researchers sometimes behave as if science has the power to make difficult decisions for society. For example, it is fashionable in some academic circles to argue that because the currently illegal drugs have been proven to kill fewer people than tobacco and alcohol, science has thereby proven that all drugs should be legalised. But that represents a conflation of facts with opinions. The very same facts could be used equally reasonably to endorse tightened controls on alcohol and tobacco rather than elimination of controls on every other drug. Science can't prove which policy option should be adopted. …

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