We need to be seen as the ‘honest broker’

Published: 18 April 2017 at 08:37

The last few years, and the last 12 months in particular, have been really challenging for the effective relationship between scientific evidence, policy making and public opinion. The fact that the US President is reigniting the autism/vaccination debate is almost beyond comprehension. Whilst the notion of a post-truth paradigm is an anathema to most of us, we have to acknowledge that as an academic community we have not always been able to communicate our findings or enable others to make balanced use of them as best as we perhaps should.

One of our central roles as a university is to ensure that our academics communicate effectively the results of their research and engage actively with relevant public policy debates. As we build and strengthen significantly our research and engagement profiles this will become all the more important - the question is how should we do this most effectively and in a way that helps build trust in the discoveries we are making. This is as important as what we are doing in helping to inform public policy and the delivery of services to our communities.

There are fundamental difference between the journey of scientific discovery and the art of public policy making. How we effectively bring our understanding as knowledgeable experts to the public table, in a way that builds trust and understanding, is more important than ever.

Is there is a gap between research and public policy?

This needs little confirmation, as all of us are aware of examples where good science has not been translated into public policy and where public policy is not based upon rational science.

The question is how we can best ensure that public policy is appropriately influenced by high quality research. I deliberately use the term influence as there is no way that we will ever see a purely scientific approach to the setting of public policy, science is but one influence upon politicians and policy makers.

Science is the search for certainty whereas “politics is the art of the possible”. Often scientists and policy makers are two peoples divided by a common language, and it is incumbent upon us to find ways that we can best articulate the findings and limitations of the research we are involved in.

In considering this I have been greatly influenced by Roger Pielke's 2007 book, The Honest Broker : Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. In it he explores how scientists engage with policy makers and politicians and the kinds of approaches that could be taken. Although somewhat artificial he divides our role into 4 broad approaches:-

  • The pure scientist - presents the data and lets others interpret and use this
  • The science arbiter - a resource for decision makers to answer factual questions. Makes no preference advice
  • The issue advocate - strongly advocates for a particular decision based upon their interpretation of the evidence
  • The honest broker of policy alternatives - presents a holistic and balanced overview of all the information in such a way that policy makers are able to make a better balanced decision not only guided by their own preferences.

I would suggest that we need to move to a position where we are consistently seen as the honest broker. In doing this we build a sense of trust that works in both directions. The policy makers begin to build up an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of scientific findings and methods. We, as researchers, develop an understanding of the complex world that is policy and law making; an arena alien to many of those not involved. To quote Mark Twain “Those that respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made.
The point that we, as academics and researchers, need to work in partnership with policy makers is critical. Karl Popper challenges us profoundly regarding scientific method - his writings will often not enlighten the policy discussion arena – 'you cannot prove anything' is hardly likely to endear you to in a policy debate - but he did however make a point that both sides should remember “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.
Engaging with policy formulation, helping develop service delivery models or using our evidence to inform resource allocation decisions are all very important aspects of our research impact and we must grow our activities in these areas. 
At all times we must reflect on how we are doing this and hopefully gaining individually and collectively a reputation for being honest brokers.
If we are able to do this consistently it will be a significant advantage in growing the standing, reputation and capabilities of ARU.