Is evidence evident?

Science and technology play a central role in our society. They are part of everybody’s life, they help to tackle the grand challenges of humankind and they create innovation and jobs and improve quality of life. Science and technology are part of our culture, and in essence define us as a species that “wants to know”–hence why we are called Homo sapiens. But do we really give science its proper value when it comes to taking political decisions?

Biotechnology and genetics in particular, are striking examples. Take genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The scientific consensus is that GM food is not riskier than conventionally farmed food. If you look at the scientific opinions the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has delivered in this field, you might be puzzled to see that some EU Member States vote 100% in favour of the scientific opinion, while others vote 100% against the scientific opinion–based on the same evidence.

This voting behaviour suggests that public opinion and perceptions, and not the evidence of science, steer debate more in some countries than in others. This does not serve all citizens well as everyone deserves to benefit from leading-edge scientific knowledge being generated in Europe.

Are there lessons to be learned for the introduction of future technologies? How can we achieve a more rational and robust societal debate that balances both the risks and the rewards?

First of all, scientists must communicate more proactively about their research and their methods. Research not communicated is research not done. If scientists don’t communicate effectively about their findings, other more doubtful lobbies will fill the gap and the societal debate will get off on the wrong foot. Once this happens, it is very hard for even the best scientists to make themselves heard.

In the case of biotechnology this means that generating first class knowledge is not enough. Scientists must better communicate what biotechnology can offer to enhance people’s lives or to tackle wider challenges in the fields of health and food security, for instance. This does not mean that risk assessments should not be done or ignored, on the contrary. But risks need to be put into perspective and balanced against the likely rewards.

The language used by scientists is also important: it must be easy to understand, while not neglecting the communication of uncertainty. In so doing, scientists must show genuine empathy for public concerns and avoid being perceived as arrogant about “owning” the truth. Scientists need to be honest about what they know and what they don’t know–the public deserve our respect.

When communicating with policymakers, it is essential to not leave them with one single choice. Scientists must offer a range of options from which policymakers may choose. They all may to lead to the same goal and offer benefits, but the way of getting there might be different.

Timing is also crucial: there is no point in delivering a superb report one week after the political decision has been taken. Therefore, the policymaking and knowledge production cycles must be synchronised in a smart manner. Scientists need to understand how the policymaking machine works and at which points in time scientific input is most urgently needed. By the same token, politicians need to understand that science is not delivered at a stroke and that building up evidence takes time, not least for accuracy checks.

While scientists should set their results in a broad, societal context, we must also challenge politicians not to cherry-pick the science that suits their view of the world, or short-term political goals. The body of evidence needs to be seen as a whole. And if politicians reject the evidence, we should expect from them honesty and transparency about their motivation. Of course, politicians are free to ignore the evidence–they are elected–while scientists are not. Science is just part of the decision-making exercise and it may well be that depending on the circumstances–and for good reasons– economic, social, ethical or electoral concerns prevail. But if politicians choose to ignore the evidence, they should say so and say why. This will enable citizens to make up their own minds and to challenge their representatives. As Nobel prize-winning US Energy Secretary Steven Chu put it: “You are entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts”.

Nor is evidence a matter of opinion. Maybe we all need to be a bit bolder on that point in our communications: scientists with politicians, and politicians with the public.

For more on Professor Anne Glover, see adviser

Visit the European Food Safety Authority at

©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012

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