Michael Keating: when science meets policy, facts play a small part

By Stephen Easton

Friday February 20, 2015

Most policy development needs a good beaker of science. But, as eminent economist and former top federal mandarin Michael Keating says, facts are not the only consideration.

Policy debate brings different value systems into conflict; choices must made, and actions taken within timeframes and budgets, often in reaction to unexpected events and with unexpected consequences. As illustrated by Keating and other speakers at an all-day Canberra forum on science and policymaking arranged by Science and Technology Australia, the relationship between the two can be awkward.

Most of the time, the role of science in policy is obvious and uncontroversial, Keating pointed out. Its conclusions only become controversial when they suggest major changes to our economy and way of life, like restrictions on water use or new ways to generate energy in the era of climate change. That’s when the fun starts.

The scientist’s view

Instead of getting frustrated, scientists just have to learn how to play the messy democratic game if they want to influence government, according to some of Australia’s most influential academics, speaking at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy last week.

Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt separated advocacy for science, technology and higher education funding from the main issue of the day: maximising the extent to which government decisions reflect the best available research. He advised scientists interested in contributing to evidence-based public policy that doing so is generally incompatible with active participation in politics.

Bruce Chapman
Bruce Chapman

“I don’t choose sides; I try to inform,” Schmidt said, arguing that pushing personal views or publicly taking a side in politics would usually preclude a role as a trusted expert adviser. Economics professor Bruce Chapman regaled the room with anecdotes of his rocky start to giving political advice — leaving Bob Hawke-era education minister John Dawkins high and dry in question time without the facts to answer a Dorothy Dixer — and suggested being apolitical was easy. “You just talk about the topic you know, and talk as if you don’t actually care about the outcome, although you might personally care hugely about the outcome,” Chapman said.

Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb echoed Schmidt’s sentiments, advising scientists to understand that policymakers are busy people, and to influence them requires patience, persistence and the ability to recognise and seize fleeting moments of opportunity.

“There is no point in just picking fights or trying to embarrass politicians or others if you’re in a job like this, because then you have no influence,” said Chubb, who also praised steps taken in the federal bureaucracy “to ensure that science is better embedded in the policy process”.

“They produced an APS 200 project … and that identified a number of things to do. They recommended that we should frame national priorities and that within them we should set agency challenges. I support that view and we’re in the process of doing something like that now. They talked about improving the science capability of the public sector. Well, I think that’s a good idea. When I was looking at who heads up Commonwealth departments in Australia today — very eminent people and I’m not criticising any of them — but only two of the 18 have any qualifications in science.”

The similar lack of qualifications and experience in science, technology, engineering or maths (or STEM) among federal parliamentarians was not necessarily a bad thing either, said Chubb: “But … you’ve got to know your audience.”

“The political process will often want us to be more definite than we know we can be.”

One of the few MPs who do have a STEM background, Karen Andrews, used the conference to give her first speech as parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Industry and Science, a role she was “delighted” to take on in December at the same time “Science” was added to the portfolio’s name.

In the first of three panel discussions, physics professor Kenneth Baldwin asked the speakers how policymakers could be better educated about scientific methods, to which Keating repeated his point that research conclusions are rarely in dispute.

“It’s often not contested because of the science, it’s contested because of the implications of the decision for various different groups,” he explained. “You know, there’s a widespread consensus on climate change. [What is] contested is what we should do about it. And why is that contested? It’s contested because some people think it’ll damage their interests.”

Keating said both sides of politics accepted the science of climate change but disagreed on what action to take, and there were “legitimately a range of considerations of a non-scientific nature … not least, what other countries are doing”.

Chubb said there was a challenge in making it clear to the public where the weight of scientific evidence lay, given the media’s obsession with contriving a picture of balance, and the right of people to make any claim they want, with little or no scientific credibility.

“The political process will often want us to be more definite than we know we can be,” Chubb said. “We then fall into the trap of qualifying everything, frequently over-qualifying it, which leaves the door open for the alternatives, when in fact what we’re really saying is there’s a 99% chance that this is happening.”

Brian Schmidt and VeronicaTaylor
Brian Schmidt and Veronica Taylor

The policymaker’s view

Department of Industry and Science deputy secretary Martin Hoffman, who has recently taken responsibility for much of the science in the portfolio, explored four issues in the awkward relationship between the search for knowledge and policy.

“The first is what I call the problem of scientific consensus,” he said. “Brian [Schmidt] spoke very powerfully about the role of the consensus, the role of the Academy [of Science] statements … but the problem is Brian didn’t win his Nobel Prize for maintaining the consensus about the nature of the universe. He won it by shattering the consensus. Another Australian Nobel Prize winner, Barry Marshall, won his Nobel Prize for shattering the consensus that ulcers come from stress and acid … and showed that it was actually a bacteria.”

Explicitly distancing his remark from climate change, Hoffman said claims that “the science is settled” were “very scary” for the policymakers left to judge the reliability of a particular consensus view.

“The second problem I observe at times is a belief, either conscious or unconscious, that the best form of government would be a philosopher-king, would be the benevolent technocrat: ‘If only, if only those politicians would listen to us scientists and do the scientific thing, then it would all be a lot better.’ Now that may be true, but it’s not how, as we’ve heard before from the other speakers, the world works.”

Hoffman took a statistic offered earlier by Chubb — only 15% of scientists think “the best science is used in land use decisions” — as an example and suggested it was not a bad thing, arguing economists, community activists or property developers would be similarly unimpressed at what informs government decision-making.

“It really depends whose perspective you’re coming from and the implicit assumption is that scientific analysis of land use must be the best, and yet I don’t think that is the way the world works, or necessarily the way we want the world to work,” he said. “Our system is one of messy compromise.”

“The train leaves the station without a timetable. When it does, you’ve got to be ready.”

Hoffman explained that within the policy process were competing values, or “views as to … the nature of individuals and the nature of groups, and the way individuals and groups interact, or should interact in our society” and said “science has to see its role within that”.

He also made the point that while science is continuous, policy decisions can’t wait for “just one more study, just six months more [or] another season of data”. “Rather, I think … we need a clear-headed and hard-headed understanding of the role and limits of science, within the nature of the policy process,” he argued, adding finally that “misuse of science by advocates” must be avoided.

On the role of science in the policy process, Hoffman said along with identifying and mitigating the impacts of policies, before and after implementation, “there’s a big role for science and technology in loosening constraints”.

“The constraint, for example, around the average fuel efficiency or the average emissions efficiency of our [national] vehicle fleet is a constraint to any climate change or emissions reduction target, and the application of science and technology is one method of loosening that constraint,” he explained.

Science’s other key role in the policy process is in its patient, persistent contributions over the long term, exemplified for the Industry and Science bureaucrat by the reports published by Australia’s Learned Academies.

“There is no doubt that those reports have impacted significantly on the policy thinking and policy direction of the government in industry policy,” said Hoffman.

Concluding his presentation, he told the audience “the other thing to remember about policy is that the window isn’t always open”, a point reiterated by speakers throughout the seminar. “The policy window for change opens and shuts irregularly and unpredictably. The train leaves the station without a timetable. When it does, you’ve got to be ready,” he said.

The art of communication

Hugh White
Hugh White

Strategic policy professor Hugh White offered insights into the art of communicating with policymakers, based on his experience as a political adviser, senior public servant and journalist. “Just saying it simpler, in shorter words; that doesn’t work,” he told the assembled boffins. “It’s a much more sophisticated communications challenge that you face, and in order to meet that challenge you actually have to think yourself into where the policymaker starts from.”

White reinforced the point that policy is about making decisions, not seeking the truth. “Don’t do your research in something you’re interested in and then try to tell the government policymakers why they should be interested in what you’ve discovered. Turn it around. Ask what questions are they trying to answer, if you want to influence policy. Maybe the questions faced by the nation, the choices, decisions etcetera, should influence what research you pursue,” he said.

He explained policy development as a dynamic “loop”, rather than a linear process, in which each part of the equation — objectives, the most efficient way to achieve them, and their cost — are all repeatedly changed until a feasible course of action is reached.

“The quintessential policy process is a matter of finding the balance between the objectives you have and your willingness to spend money, and sometimes other resources, to achieve them,” said White. “Unless you know why and how much something matters, you don’t know how much is worth spending on it [and] often the really uncertain piece of the question is not what the objective is, but how much it matters and therefore how much is worth spending on it.”

To influence that process, academics should target all the players: politicians, public servants, interest groups and especially the media. “That’s the way you get to the others,” said White, drawing a line between “polemic” and “advocacy”.

“Polemic is when your advocacy is influenced not by your analysis, but by an ideology or a political predilection or something else. Advocacy is legitimate, as long as it’s driven by the analysis. I’d encourage you, if this is the kind of thing that interests you, not to shy away from advocacy, defined in that fairly limited way.”

“Advocacy is legitimate, as long as it’s driven by the analysis.”

Another deputy secretary, Rona Mellor from the Department of Agriculture’s biosecurity division, shared her experiences as a lawyer with a background in the application of regulatory policy, working in an area where science is very important.

“The one message I want to leave behind today is that in the policy and regulatory world, science can’t sit alone,” she began, before launching into an anecdote about her first day in her current job. Scarcely had she unpacked her coffee cup when she was informed of a major threat to Australia’s biosecurity in the form of a beetle-infested cargo ship literally coming over the horizon. The boat was turned around and sent back to New Zealand before crossing into Australian waters, but not before Mellor’s decision-making process caused a minor revolt.

“Some of my [science] people weren’t very happy with me when I was pondering and weighing up what we should do, because to them it was clear: we are not having these beetles here, they should go,” she explained. “But they weren’t necessarily thinking about the impacts that that decision had on the relationship with New Zealand, on the relationship with the shipping company, the relationships with importers who are waiting for the actual cargo on the ship, and therefore what was the steps that we had to go through.

“As far as they were concerned, it’s science and that’s what you have to do. The next week, then I learnt how powerful they were in the department, because a group of them sent an email to my secretary to tell my secretary that I was the wrong person for the job. I was a wee bit shocked, because this hadn’t happened anywhere else before.”

Mellor said she was glad she was shown the email, because it opened up dialogue with the scientists in the department.

“It was rather uncomfortable,” she said, to laughs from the audience. “But it was a good opportunity for me to listen to them about where did they think science fitted into the evidence base and the decision-making within the department.

“The tricky bit when you’re leading scientists is to actually give them the right voice. What’s the evidentiary point that they can bring, particularly when they understand that other people are [also] bringing a voice? …

“I’ve seen plenty of experiences even in front of ministers, where that arm of government is looking for a black-and-white answer and the science answer is not. And I’ve seen very, very accomplished people being pushed towards a black-and-white, and holding firm in their professionalism about scenarios and consequences and risk. But I’ve also seen it the other way, where people can get pushed to black-and-white … One of the things that I’ve tried to do with our science cohort is teach them about how to present their evidence in different places, because it can get very tricky.”

One of the hardest things about working in the public service for scientists, in Mellor’s view, is avoiding the tendency to keep arguing the point when they feel the wrong decision has been made.

“Some used to think that they could … if the government had made a decision and they didn’t like it, they thought they were entitled to hop on the email and have a view. No! You have to think of where your bread and butter comes from first, and if you don’t like that you might have to think of somewhere else, so it’s a little less free than some of their experiences in other places.”

Portrait photos: National Science Week

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