Wake-up call: is the government now listening to university experts?

Monday, October 21, 2019

Steve Brine, a former public health minister, was intrigued when he spotted a fellow train passenger reading Matthew Walker’s bestseller Why We Sleep. He picked up a copy of the popular science book, which argues that sleeping a eight hours per night can transform physical and mental health, and subsequently pushed to include guidance on minimum sleep hours in the government’s health green paper.

“I was really struck by what it said,” says Brine. “It was a good piece of work that landed at the right time with the right person, who was prepared to take on officials rolling their eyes at ministers. I also had a fair amount of credibility in the public health space so they were probably prepared to listen, and Matt [Hancock, the health secretary] was prepared to back me.”

Did reading a book that made complicated neuroscience research more accessible help him to make his point to fellow ministers? “Unquestionably so,” he says. “I was able to show officials the evidence having read the book.”

Brine stresses that it was the quality of the science and its timing that mattered most. “It has to be good, credible science that hits at a moment in time that people are willing to receive it,” he explains. “You have to be knocking on an open door. I knew I was writing a green paper on prevention. Sleep [research] landed at the right time in the right way and I was able to include it.”

But does research make it out of universities and into government policy as smoothly as it should? It’s a question that matters, given that climate breakdown has been exacerbated by scientists’ failure to get their ideas through to politicians.

According to Danielle Beswick, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham who is finishing a government fellowship looking at how select committees choose and use evidence, there’s a gap between how academics and policymakers communicate. “Academics should be able to explain what they do to a five-year-old,” she explains. “There are people who are very good at that and they have a disproportionate amount of influence as a result.”

Academics tend to talk about problems rather than solutions, adds Beswick. Those who get their message across to ministers are typically able to explain their expertise and the underpinning research, and what people need to know and do about the evidence. “It’s often that last step – ‘if I were in your shoes, this is what I’d do’ – that academics are unwilling to do. It’s essential.”

This is where popular science comes in, since it’s purposefully written for a more general audience. “If you can say ‘here are the headlines and here’s what it means for you and your life’, people can start to translate that into what it might mean for policy and intervention,” Beswick says. “It’s much more powerful.”

Parliament is making efforts to increase engagement with experts, says Grant Hill-Cawthorne, head of the parliamentary office of science and technology (POST). “There’s often a public perception that government has no scientists in the civil service but a lot of them are specialists themselves,” he adds.

Each government department now has a chief scientific advisor, as do many of the arm’s length bodies. “They’re there for ministers to bounce ideas off and give them confidential advice. Many of them are still practicing scientists,” Hill-Cawthorne says.

There is a perception that parliament and the government are “evidence-free”– reinforced by Michael Gove’s infamous speech as minister for justice in 2016 that “the public has had enough of experts”. But Hill-Cawthorne argues that evidence-based policy is done well in the UK in comparison with many other countries. Where departmental advisors are not experts in every scientific technique or discovery, they often act as brokers to connect with the research community and make sure the correct experts are feeding in. And the government’s green and white paper system for drawing up policy is very successful at involving scientists, he adds.

“No government wants to bring out completely bad policy that isn’t based on evidence at all,” says Hill-Cawthorne. “They are going to be open to [evidence] even if there are political or other ideals that play a part.”

Despite this, research in 2017 found that scientists, academics and researchers are underrepresented in giving written and oral evidence to committees. Over the past 18 months Hill-Cawthorne has been trying to lure contributions from more researchers by distributing advice on social media and organising regional training workshops. POST is also launching a fellowship scheme to embed researchers in parliament for up to two years. And each government department now publishes areas of research interest outlining where more research would provide a better indication of how to make good policy.

Without a concerted effort to reach out to as many researchers as possible, there’s a danger that the government can rely too much on highly “professionalised” academic voices, warns Beswick. “Finding academics who can translate their expertise and their complicated research into simple accessible language is a huge skill and often one that academics struggle with.”

Ultimately the responsibility falls on scientists to communicate their ideas in a way that resonates with minister. With impact now part of the Research Excellence Framework, the national exercise to assess UK research quality, academics are now being judged on their societal impact. While some scientists may feel that their research speaks for itself, storytelling is critical, Beswick says. “Personal experiences help cement and bring to life the overarching research data.”

Source: The Guardian