Why we need scientific literacy in government to solve the problems of 2020
9 min read
Written by Emily McIntyre - 2300 words, 9 minute read
Science literacy and the public's perception of research:
We live in a world with what seems like unlimited information at our fingertips. A spark of inquisitiveness and a general search returns a trove of diverse information from various sources. A simple question can return dozens of answers, each different yet claiming to be true. So how do we sift through these claims and find what is relevant, important, and factual?
A well-founded approach requires the ability to evaluate an underlying question then properly analyze methods used to obtain the evidence in order to come to valid conclusions. This process of thinking critically and creatively is known as scientific literacy.
What do you think of when you hear about science research or scientific discoveries? In a recent survey by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) (1), respondents primarily brought up health and medicine, with a few thinking of laboratory or space research. With scientific discoveries extending into mathematics, computer programming, economics and psychology, it’s easy to see the gap between scientists and public perception.
Though the majority of research is based in honesty and ethics, people less familiar with the scientific process may be wary of perceived agendas of funding sources or biased results on complicated subject matters. Scientific integrity (2) is a cornerstone of research, and multiple groups are dedicated towards upholding responsible conduct. Combating misconceptions regarding research is important, as science can and should be both relevant and accessible to the general public. Part of this onus falls upon scientists themselves.
So what can scientists do that builds trust with the public? Since many are skeptical about research integrity, ways to boost public confidence (3) include increasing transparency about the research process, addressing conflicts of interest (often regarding funding), and taking responsibility for errors or missteps. Namely, open public access to scientific data and reviews by independent committees increase assurance in scientists. While there is much progress to be made in access and transparency, there are numerous databases (4) available to locate peer reviewed studies, many of which are free to the public.
How has credible evidence successfully tackled societal problems?
Science is rooted in the desire to learn more, question why, and accept constant revisions that slowly add to our understanding of the big picture. Research and discovery have driven remarkable advancements, making leaps and bounds towards improving the duration and quality of life. This has only increased with the amount of time and funding dedicated towards research.
Take for example the study of DNA: the material which carries genetic instructions for the development and function of living organisms. Just under a century ago, scientists including Frederick Griffith and Oswald Avery confirmed that DNA serves as the genetic material (7). Since then, genetic research (8) has made incredible progress in genetic testing, gene therapy, and identifying precise causes of genetic disorders at the molecular level. Utilization of evidence from these studies has led to significant improvements in public health.
The depth and value of research in other fields have blossomed as well. The fruits of their labors include technologies and items we frequently utilize, such as GPS, radio, batteries, charging ports, and improved food production. Other developments such as vaccines, preparation of safe drinking water, and the use of technology to mitigate the effects of natural disasters are less apparent in everyday life but are nonetheless critically important.
Interdisciplinary research brings together fields that appear to have stark differences, as evidence derived from research in one sector can benefit additional disciplines. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is known for their work in space exploration, but their research has contributed towards technologies and products (9) that spur the economy and save lives. Aircraft anti-icing systems, firefighter gear, and state of the art video analysis systems are just a few examples among NASA’s diverse scientific contributions to society.
What is evidence-based policy?
The term evidence-based (or evidence informed) policy refers to decisions made upon established evidence where objective data and rigorous analyses held to scientific good practice are used to inform decisions and policies (5). By using what we know: e.g. published research, expert analyses, outcomes from prior policy implementation, and statistical modeling, we can further build our knowledge base and make informed policy decisions.
Quality, credible evidence is applied to the policy making process at multiple levels. This reduces bias and ideologically-driven decision making in favor of rational decision making. One report (6) published by the United Kingdom stated the government should “produce policies that really deal with problems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressures; that tackle causes not symptoms."Effectively utilizing our knowledge base is critical for overcoming current challenges.
While benefits stemming from scientific research have proved invaluable for America, where do the information and analyses upholding them fit in with other influences on public policy?
Unfortunately, research and evidence often take the backseat to prevailing beliefs and opinions.
In addition to evidence, there are seven major factors (11) that inform and influence science and public policy. Limits in resources, experience, and other contingencies (such as timeframes) might not directly contradict evidence-based policy but could act as restrictions or barriers to its implementation. Values, judgements, traditions, and influencing powers (such as the media or lobbyists) may take priority over evidence when it comes to appeasing political party members, constituents, or other individuals with implemented policies.
Differences in everyday language and priorities contribute to a communication gap between policymakers and researchers. Challenges to long-standing assumptions or value systems combined with external pressures tend to halt movement towards more evidence-based decision making processes (10).
Prioritizing evidence and other influences on policy making:
Political agendas are front and center in the world of policy making, and many prioritize perception of the public and supporters over evidence. When faced with options to implement policy, a politician may tend to support what constituents perceive to be the most beneficial or cost effective as opposed to what research has found.
While addressing and advocating for evidence-based policy, we must also consider public perceptions. Challenging opinions and beliefs that are tightly held, even in the face of opposing evidence (12), is difficult and often unsuccessful.
In fact, when presented with data that oppose deep-held beliefs, many people tend to double down even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.
Interestingly, this denial of facts is not necessarily specific to a given topic at hand and is rooted in self-preservation. Individuals innately want to protect their beliefs and worldview from harm, and this is an instinctive process that occurs when confronted with contradictory information. Avoiding this “backfire effect” (13) requires careful listening and articulation of facts, and extra care must be taken in discussions with large groups.
How can we address pitfalls surrounding evidence-based policy?
Another barrier to implementing evidence-based policy is that in many fields, such as energy and climate, evidence may bring about controversy due to (often political) implications of proposed solutions. Research in these areas is held to the same robust methods and analyses as other highly respected fields and is subject to rigorous peer review by experts but is unfortunately treated with less trust and more skepticism.
Sources of funding can bring about questions of bias and ethical dilemmas. The Coca-Cola company funded organizations and studies aiming to shift blame of the cause of obesity from sugar and energy intake to levels of exercise. While these studies were published in reputable journals, they were riddled with conflicts of interest (14). Though cases like these are highly uncommon and in opposition to the standards of research integrity, they unfortunately still contribute to lower public confidence in research.
The integrity and validity of studies and the scientists and institutes behind them must be held to high standards. Openness and proper communication of research findings between scientists, the general public, and policy makers is of vital importance to building public trust in science and improving the field as a whole. We should not aim just for increased implementation of evidence-based policy, but additionally in having science literate individuals as government leaders who are actively involved in promoting research integrity and dissemination.
Addressing bias and implementing change at the systemic level:
Science does not occur in a vacuum, lacking influence from human bias (15) whether it is explicit or implicit (that is, automatic and unintentional yet still able to influence behavior). With regards to experiments, the scientific method and peer review process is designed to help address bias and minimize its impacts. However, we must actively work to dismantle larger scale systemic biases widespread in society that also tie back into public confidence in science.
One harrowing lesson stems from the Tuskegee Study (16, 17), conducted by the US Public Health Service from 1932-1972. This study aimed to follow untreated syphilis in black men, who were left uninformed of the real purpose and not given access to proper treatment or cures developed mid-study.
Even now, black individuals are still more likely to encounter negative experiences in health care settings and understandably have less trust the medical system. This impact of systematic medical exploitation of black people (18,19) is correlated with decreases in treatment and increases in mortality.
Distrust and fear in exploitation has reduced black participation in research studies (20) which could make these studies less applicable towards the general population. To counteract this requires implementing change at the systemic level, rather than just giving lip service towards diversity and inclusion. A multifaceted approach to target bias head on includes introducing interrupters (21) that bring focus towards consistency and evidence, as opposed to perceptions or assumptions.
How scientists can make a difference in politics:
Many believe scientists should either not engage with politics or should keep public remarks as apolitical as possible. This is not a new phenomenon. In the early 1930s Albert Einstein was criticized for speaking against the rise of fascism in Germany. Einstein challenged this, stating (22):
“I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters, i.e. human affairs in the broadest sense.”
Scientists are one of America’s most trusted groups (23), and recent studies indicate that crossing the line from being informative to advocating for specific action may not impact their credibility. However, only a small number of congressional representatives have backgrounds in science, whether they hold an undergraduate or graduate degree.
Broadening representation of both scientists and science-literate individuals at all of government will accelerate implementation of evidence-based policy.
Science literacy is crucial for participating in reason-filled discourse regarding science and technology and engaging in science related issues. Science literate individuals can explain phenomena, design and evaluate scientific questions, and interpret data and evidence in a focused, objective, and meaningful manner (24).
It should be noted that understanding the importance of scientific inquiry or holding a degree in a STEM field does not equate to widespread expertise or being able to properly implement evidence-based policy. However, being aware of limitations, properly evaluating methods utilized in obtaining results, and knowing when and how to properly consult and collaborate with experts are common qualities encouraged in scientists that can be utilized in effective policy implementation.
What we can do to advocate for science in public policy?
Emphasizing the importance of evidence informed practices in developing policy aims to ensure inquiries are carried out properly, held to high standards of integrity, and outcomes obtained are significant and effective. While representation of individuals with STEM backgrounds is increasing (25), it is critical to bring more leaders into government positions that can utilize their training in research and scientific fields to influence policy making. Legislation on significant issues facing our country should be built upon evidence-based research findings.
Science literate individuals can help combat attacks on basic scientific principles, make science more accessible to the public and advocate for the importance of research and scientific integrity. Organizations such as 314Action (26) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (27) advocate for supporting scientists in government and implementing evidence-based policy to solve pressing issues. Space exploration and research, policies on climate and energy, funding for basic research, and gun legislation are just the tip of the iceberg where implementing evidence-based policy is critical for effective and beneficial outcomes.
For those of us who are scientists, what can we do? While running for office or directly supporting a candidate will help improve representation and influence of scientists in government, there are additional steps we can take to implement evidence-based policy to drive scientific discovery and benefits for all:
Actively participate in science communication and community engagement to improve scientific literacy