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Our vulnerable world is facing some extremely complicated challenges that call for new and innovative solutions. This puts a lot of pressure on the dialogue between scientists and policy makers.
In order to make informed decisions politicians need, well, information. The world is full of data, but what it lacks is good advice. That is what the politician expects from the scientist: a smorgasbord of good advice, where the only thing left to do is just pick and choose. This description is, is of course, a caricature of the situation, but not so very far from reality, I think.
The scientific community has slowly but steadily been waking up to face the global challenges and to recognise its role in solving them. For example the International Council for Science (ICSU) has participated actively in the United Nation’s Rio+20 process and is currently organizing its own answer to global problems, the Future Earth initiative.
Unfortunately when it comes to advice, it’s a buyer’s market. If the policy makers do not like the merchandise they can move their business elsewhere, i e. ignore the scientific evidence. The fact that most research is publicly financed, and therefore more or less directly under government control, makes the situation precarious for the scientists. According to ICSU’s Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the Conduct of Science (CFRS) the academic freedom of individual scientists and academic institutions is being diminished by not only political, but also religious and commercial pressure.
Everyone has probably heard about the situation in Canada, thanks to the great job the Canadian scientists and science journalists have done in order to bring the state of affairs to light. What has happened is that the conservative government has imposed strict restrictions on federal scientists. They cannot contact the media or even publish their findings freely.
There have been similar incidents in Finland too. Two researchers working for the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) received warnings from their employer in 2010 for expressing views on nuclear energy that contradicted the official line of VTT. A group of researchers from the same institute approached the media later the same year claiming management had dictated which research results were published and which were not. The researchers were discouraged from presenting their views publicly even as private persons. In late 2011 VTT received a critical advisory comment from the Finnish Parliamentary Ombudsman for restricting the freedom of speech of the two researchers.
The future is not looking much brighter for Finnish scientists working for state-run institutes. The government is currently reorganising the research funding of several research institutes. The goal is to combine institutes to increase efficiency, while earmarking almost half of the current combined budget of the institutes to be used for “strategically targeted research”. The strategic flavour of the month will of course be determined by whoever is running the government at that particular moment.
It is a confusing situation: there is more demand for science based advice than ever, but at the same time very little patience and understanding for the process of scientific inquiry. What science journalists and other science communication professionals can do is to communicate, not just the most recent research findings, but also how science works. Only when that message has sunk in, will the situation stop being about governments vs. scientisst and start being about solutions instead.