The true value of science?

10 February 2012

Ryan Meyer has published an article Nature that considers the true value of US climate science that is particularly relevant to the contribution that think tanks can make. It starts with a familiar tone for many think tanks:

they all argue that their research will make the world a better place.

Soon, however they find that despite the promises this is not an exact science:

Take the US$3-billion Human Genome Project and the breathless promises of cures and treatments that it would bring. In fact, the benefits have been modest because solving societal problems is a lot more complicated and difficult than generating new knowledge.

I see this all the time (and saw it more a year ago). Many think tanks promise impact and writing it down in their contracts with the funders. These are the Theories of Change that underpin the logframes they sig-up to. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with promising policy outcomes. All of these initiative make the wrong assumption that more evidence leads to better informed decisions. Or that there is a path from evidence to policy that can be defined ex-ante. I am well aware that as a researcher this is well beyond my direct influence. Change depends on others.

Repeated studies have shown that making information useful demands engagement with those who will use it. This is about more than just communicating science effectively. It is about responsive scientists and science institutions

But of course, what funder would agree to a proposal that says ‘we will try, but cannot guarantee anything’ -even if it is being honest? In this world of value for money, can we be honest about the limits of science and still get public support? Well, apparently there is a way, according to Meyer:

In its 2012 report, the US Global Change Research Program  (USGCRP) has expressed a more nuanced and humble account of the role of science in society’s responses to climate change.

For a US$30 billion programme, it’s strategy says some daring things:

For example, the draft plan provocatively states: “scientific knowledge is only one part of a much broader process. Information may be scientifically relevant without being decision relevant.”

This example presents nothing new in terms of approach. This blog and other programmes have been advocating for this for quite some time. But it is interesting that such a large public programme, and a hard sciences one in fact, that has taken this decision. It would be great if other funders accepted this and recognised the value of research with or without influence.

Why do I say this? I think that we have failed to see that there are really no necessary links between all research, communicating ideas, and all aspects of policymaking. We have assumed that there is a continuum between these. This exists in some cases but in others this is just not what we find. Just as there is research that is clearly linked to decision making, there is research that isn’t. And this research is no less important.

In some cases, there is research that needs to be de-linked from its communication or from policymaking. Others, not researchers themselves, can take on these roles. We need to recognise this and value these different elements of the system. Each is important for its own sake: academia, the media, and the civil service, for example. The links between them are welcome but not mandatory.