Saturday, June 6, 2015

Oceans require scientists and policy-makers to learn each other's language

Some thought that 1993 would be the end of UNESCO, the UN organization for Science. The reason: UNESCO decided then that members of its Executive Board no longer needed to be expert in all UNESCO’s fields of work (education, culture, science, communication and information) but only in one of them. This meant that a UNESCO Board member with no experience in the field of science still had full decision power with regard to UNESCO’s oceanographic strategy and activities.

In the eyes of experts this meant the downgrading of UNESCO from a key scientific forum of experts to a talk-shop of bureaucrats who don’t really know what they’re talking about. The scenario was considered catastrophic: as if in the hospital decisions were no longer taken by the Chief Heart Surgeon but by the Financial Director! Science – a long-term and winding process by nature – would become the victim of short-term cost-benefit analyses and political whims.

The decision-makers on the other hand seemed to be happier because they received more freedom to appoint Board members. However many kept complaining about a disconnect between science and politics: they felt that scientists kept on doing too much “their own thing”. As a consequence they also experienced a lack of accountability.

How can we overcome this gap between those who do (scientists) and those who decide (policy-makers)? I think this can be done if both parties are willing to learn each other’s language.

Decision-makers need to learn the scientific language of serendipity and patience. Without these concepts it is impossible to understand that it takes decades of research to provide society with “societal relevance”. Three examples. Firstly, nobody knew that the microchip – present everywhere in our environment – would be a byproduct of a scientific project that was launched…. to put a man on the moon! Secondly, nobody knew that the invention of the mobile phone would totally revolutionize the way we live and interact with each other. It’s even funny to see how Dutch people reacted in this video from 1999 when they were asked if they wanted a “mobile phone”. They were surprised and not interested at all. Imagine what policy-makers would have written if they had to assess a scientific project launched to create “mobile phones”. And lastly, when UNESCO created CERN in 1954, nobody knew that 45 years later CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee would invent the world wide web which allows all computers in the world to communicate via the internet. Nobody ordered the world wide web, it just popped up and it changed the world forever. 

Scientists need to learn the political language of changing winds and impatience. Not to accelerate science or to adapt it to changing political winds, but to be better motivated and equipped to explain how science really works and what can be expected from it. Instead of blaming policy-makers for their impatience, scientists must explain to them why it’s a bad idea to be impatient with science and foremost what this means in terms of infrastructure investments and performance indicators. What are the right performance indicators according to scientists?

Once policy-makers and scientists will speak each other’s language, a constructive dialogue can follow. Policy-makers will understand better that it takes more than counting publications to capture the true value of science. Scientists will understand that their help is needed to design more sophisticated indicators to describe the value of science better. For example: are scientists invited to participate in relevant decision-making bodies? Does their research contribute to debates in society? Does it provide relevant advice to the government? Does it spark new insights and developments, contribute to innovations, improve interdisciplinary cooperation, or increase our data monitoring capacity? Does it help the international community?

This policy-science dialogue will help policy-makers to communicate better to scientists about their needs. What are the challenges they face in running the country? Together with scientists they can identify the corresponding knowledge gaps. This is where UNESCO’s 5 scientific programmes can be especially helpful to the international community. Because they address challenges that can’t be solved by one country, not even by one continent on its own. Examples are the rise and acidification of our oceans which will be addressed during the upcoming General Assembly of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission from 18-25 June 2015. If scientists and policy-makers can find a common language in Paris to agree about the political need to take action and about the scientific (and economic!) consequences of this action, the world might remain a safe place for another couple of decades.

This blog is a plea for a meaningful dialogue between scientists and policy-makers, nothing more and nothing less. It doesn’t pretend that the value of science can be measured exactly, let alone be predicted for the decades to come. But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to at least indicate the value of science and that consequently science-policy can only mean “carte blanche”. We can indicate the value of science if only we make the effort to develop the right language to discuss it: a language that expresses intellectual perseverance, real world challenges, performance indicators (yes) and, to quote former Dutch Ambassador Dirk-Jan Van den Berg, some “adequate free space to foster the unimaginable in order for the science system to work”.

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

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