Science, values and policy

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up shots of documents clipped together and stack on top of each other, on a workers desk.

As I have repeatedly stated, policy formation is properly based on a variety of inputs. The distinctive role of science is to provide the base knowledge (and limits of knowledge) with which the other dimensions are integrated during policy formation. Those other dimensions include fiscal priorities as well as political and diplomatic considerations, together with the social and civic values of the population as represented by ‘public opinion’. Of course, when it comes to values, scientists’ views are no more valid than those of any other citizen. It is precisely because in a democracy accommodation of values is so much part of the process that sometimes the particular role of scientific input can be overlooked. That said though, political decisions can and should sometimes override a purely technocratic argument.

Very different from what I have just described is when societal debates are held when knowledge is suppressed or is intentionally misconstrued. This definitely does not serve the public well. The public deserves to know what scientists know and do not know, and then can come to its own conclusions. Thus the public interest can only be served by having science presented in an accurate and unbiased manner so as to provide a firm foundation for the healthy debates about values that are so fundamental to a participatory democracy.

Potential biases include avoiding parts of the scientific argument as well as wrongly emphasising or deliberately misinterpreting the level of scientific uncertainty. We have seen the confusion that reigned when the complex nature of climate science was misused and used for a proxy for a debate in which a variety of other values-based interests were in play. The use of ‘manufactured uncertainty’ to contest scientific findings has been well described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt.

The other factor that is important to consider is that knowledge is increasing very fast. Thus, for example, we know a whole lot more about the global climate than we did 20 years ago, and more about the safety of food fortification with folic acid than we did a decade ago. As science advances, we progressively acquire a lot more understanding about the safety or otherwise of many technologies than we did previously, and with this comes much more certainty. Thus we are no longer fearful about microwave technology as we were when it was first widely used and, beyond religious objection, the concerns about in vitro fertilisation have long passed. Just as our attitudes to social situations change (e.g. same-sex marriage), so we must be open to review technologies over time.

As I pointed out in my speech to the Hauraki Gulf Forum (PDF) a few days ago, we have sometimes confused the need to limit the use of technologies with limits on the technologies themselves, and at other times polemic has restricted the type of mature conversation about technology that any country needs. Actually, I see no problem when society agrees to limit a technology, provided that the conversation preceding that decision is open and the population hears rational and balanced discussion rather than simply assertively presented dogma. Some of the hybrid forums the French have run on areas of controversial technology demonstrate the value of proper conversation.

This blog has been prompted by a couple of recent events.

The first relates to the Government’s decision to continue with voluntary addition of folic acid to bread rather than to implement mandatory fortification. The Ministry of Primary Industries’ evaluation of the submissions to the consultation process (PDF) is fair and the Government’s decision is rational, although not my preferred outcome. But it was disappointing to see that after the decision was made, there were further exaggerated assertions that the science around folic acid fortification is not settled.

The second precipitant relates to a biotechnology conference now under way that has received adverse comment. Genetic modification inevitably and appropriately continues to be a topic of conversation. The evidence shows that the safety of GM food, under appropriate regulation, is now unequivocal and that past concerns over ecological problems have now really boiled down to those problems associated with monoculture in general. The global experience of GM is now quite extensive. A decade ago New Zealand made a decision not to progress GM technologies, especially in the area of extensive food production (although of course we use GM technologies indirectly in medicines all the time). Given our societal values and trade considerations, it is fair to say that this position may well be appropriate for New Zealand although, given impending issues of global food security, it may not be an affordable position for all countries. Again, the national decision on the use of a technology is properly a matter for an informed society, and that is how it should be. But to criticise and impede a conference aimed at re-evaluating what we know and do not know about the science of GM is to do the national conversation, and our society, a grave disservice.

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