UCL News


Opinion: Science should be at the centre of all policy making

24 May 2021

Science has played a key role in policymaking during the pandemic and must continue to be central if we are to make breakthroughs in global issues, says Professor Ruth Morgan (UCL Security & Crime Science).

Professor Ruth Morgan

The rate of ice melt, the impact of a global pandemic, the capabilities of artificial intelligence, and the impact of fake news. These are all big challenges where science informs us and pioneers the tools we need to unlock the next steps in tackling them.

Yet in an age where science has never been more advanced, and where our capabilities to collect and analyse data are unsurpassed, we are still having to contend with some of the biggest threats we've ever faced.

The role of science has traditionally been reserved for enabling developments. Think about getting humans to the Moon, how we've transformed medicine and surgical procedures, or created new ways of communicating and keeping our societies secure; or simply how we've come to understand the workings of our planet.

But science will need to become more than this if we are to make the breakthroughs in the global issues we currently face.

Science that understands people and communities must be part of the conversation. At the same time, we also need to be clear about what science can and can't do as we look for solutions.

It is probably not contentious to suggest that complex global challenges need science involved in the search for those solutions. But good science is just the first step. It is individuals, teams and communities who are the changemakers, and so good science needs to incorporate a clear and nuanced understanding of people.

If people are the key to making change and unlocking the solutions to complex challenges, we need to create environments that bring everyone together - the decision makers (often global leaders, governments and policy makers), along with entrepreneurs, innovators, activists, and scientists.

We need many different (and perhaps disruptive) perspectives to a specific issue to find the right solutions. But it doesn't end there.

For those solutions to create real change and make a difference, we must never forget that at the heart of every major challenge are the individuals and communities who are connected to that challenge, and impacted by it.

A good understanding of what motivates a community and the values it holds, both individually and as a collective group, needs to be incorporated into solutions so that those solutions don't just work in a lab, but have traction in reality.

This may sound straightforward and maybe even quite reasonable. Yet, the way we involve science in significant policy decisions, and incorporate both technical knowledge along with understanding the wider impact on the communities affected, is really varied.

It raises a question - is science being looked to at the right times and in the right ways? Is science part of the ongoing conversation as we seek to make the world a better place?

We have seen a range of different responses to the global pandemic and involvement of science in policy decisions, from closing borders and restricting all movement of people to more graded restrictions on household mixing, face mask policy, and the creation of exemptions for certain groups of people.

In other areas, such as the development of the gene-editing technique Crispr and its application to humans, the regulation of the technology and its interaction with society has been similarly varied in different states and nations.

Global challenges transcend governments, international boundaries, leadership boards, short-term agendas and traditional siloes. Therefore, if science that incorporates an understanding of people is one of the keys to making breakthroughs in these critical global challenges we face, we need to have scientists incorporated into decision-making teams and leadership bodies.

This leaves us with another question - could this really be feasible?

The World Economic Forum's Young Scientists programme seeks to bring together some of the brightest minds in science from across the world.

As Young Scientists, we have found a role for scientists as ambassadors and communicators, and not just as subject matter experts. It is well known now that increasing diversity generally leads to increased creativity, greater innovation, faster problem solving, better decision making; and in companies, this leads to increased profits and better reputation.

We have seen this in action within the forum as it creates opportunities at physical meetings and in online settings for interactions between scientists and decision makers and global leaders (from across the tech, business and creative industries). This can and should happen in more settings, large and small.

This type of dialogue, often started at specific events, continues throughout the year, and creates conversations. Conversations are key. They bring together the diverse insights and understandings we need, of how people think and are motivated, and point us to the infrastructures that will frame how solutions can be deployed effectively.

Creating spaces for this kind of ongoing interaction makes it possible for science that engages deeply with people, societies and their physical and cultural environments. That kind of dialogue will lead to significant opportunities for decisions based on science to be integrated into strategy, horizon scanning, and in developing the solutions that have real impact.

In the UK, we are seeing the promise of this kind of dialogue that has taken place in the response to the pandemic.

The UK government's vaccine taskforce has delivered a national rollout of vaccines at a pace that is phenomenal. This success has its roots in many decisions that were made in very early 2020 in a climate of great uncertainty. Those decisions were made by government, healthcare, business and science leaders to not only achieve a viable vaccine, but ensure access to the doses needed, as well as start a broadscale delivery of them to the adult population by the end of the year.

But science isn't only needed when the challenge we face has a clear scientific dimension like a pandemic or climate change. Science has a contribution to make as we seek to tackle every kind of big challenge, whether that is global poverty, education, equality or securing justice.

As we face these challenges, global leaders need science. Scientists can bring data, insights and transformational discoveries, but they can also bring alternative viewpoints and ways of thinking to tackle the big issues of our time.

These issues rarely have simple, single-discipline solutions that can be identified in one-off events or meetings. They need collective, multidisciplinary, interactive, creative, strategic thinking that incorporates not only economics, politics, policy and business insights, but also science.

In short, science can't just be brought in when a crisis emerges, we need an ongoing and dynamic conversation between scientists and the leadership teams that are tackling the big complex world challenges.

For real impact and change this needs to become the norm and it needs to be happening across the board, within government, and in business and industry.

We have never lived in a time when creating opportunities for scientists to be incorporated into global leadership and decision making has been more urgent. If we can make it a reality, we will ultimately be able to collectively deliver the solutions that are needed to address the big global threats of today and tomorrow.

This article was originally published on BBC News on 23 May 2021.