Tag Archives: decision-making

Speak up for STEM and give facts a chance

As science and technology researchers, practitioners and enthusiasts, we feel very strongly that our community should think analytically and use scientific information to inform their decisions, as individuals and as a nation.

We hope our leaders in politics, business and in the media incorporate the lessons and findings of science and technology into their decision-making about health, energy, transport, land and marine use – and recognise the benefits of investing in great scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions.

But how do we ensure critical thinking is applied in decision-making? How do we incorporate and apply scientific findings and analysis in the formulation of policy, and encourage strong, strategic investment in research?

The only way is to become vocal and proactive advocates for STEM.

Scientists and technologists must see ourselves as not only experts in our field, but also as educators and ambassadors for our sector. Scientists are explicitly taught that our profession is based on logic; that it’s our job to present evidence and leave somebody else to apply it.

For people who’ve made a career of objectivity, stepping out of that mindset and into the murky world of politics and policy can be a challenge, but it’s a necessary one.

The planet is heading towards crises that can be solved by science – food and water security, climate change, health challenges, extreme weather events. It’s arguably never been more important for scientists and technologists to step outside our comfort zone and build relationships with the media, investors, and political leaders. We need to tell the stories of science and technology to solve the species-shaking challenges of our time.

A plethora of opportunities exist for STEM researchers and practitioners to improve and use their skills in communication, influence, marketing, business, and advocacy. As the peak body representing scientists and technologists, Science & Technology Australia hosts a variety of events to equip STEM professionals with the skills they need, while connecting them with the movers and shakers in those worlds.

Science meets Parliament is one of these valuable opportunities, and has been bringing people of STEM together with federal parliamentarians for 18 years. Others include Science meets Business and Science meets Policymakers.

We can provide the forum, but it’s up to STEM professionals to seize the opportunity by forging relationships with our nation’s leaders in politics, business and the media. We must ensure the voice of science is heard and heeded – not just on the day of an event, but every day.

Currently STEM enjoys rare bilateral political support; a National Innovation and Science Agenda; and a new Industry, Innovation and Science Minister, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who has indicated his intention to continue to roll it out.

As we encounter our fourth science minister in three years, however, we cannot rest on our laurels and allow science and technology to slide down the list of priorities. Bigger challenges are also mounting, with the profession of science correspondent virtually dead in Australia and the international political culture favouring opinion and rhetoric over established fact and credibility.

Scientists and technologists must resist their natural tendency to humility, and proactively sort the nuggets of truth from the pan of silty half-truth. We must actively work to influence public debate by pushing evidence-based arguments into the media, and into the political discourse.

When our society starts assuming that we should make substantial and long-term investment in research; when the methods and findings of science and technology are routinely incorporated into shaping policy and making important decisions for the nation – we’ll consider our job to be well done.

Kylie Walker

CEO, Science & Technology Australia

Read next: Dr Maggie Evans-Galea, Executive Director of ATSE’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM, paints a picture of Australia’s science and innovation future – one that requires a major cultural shift.

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Decision-making with science

Many scientists are keen to communicate research they believe can help inform decision-making, from public opinion to the policy of our governments.

But the will of scientists to abandon intellectual “ivory towers” does not in itself ensure a more prominent role for science in any decision-making.

Consider the appointment of a climate change sceptic and an anti-vaccination proponent to the new White House administration of US president Donald Trump.

Does this signify a prioritisation of emotions, personal beliefs and social media savviness above facts? If so, then ensuring a role for research evidence in decision-making may be one of the greatest challenges facing the science community.

A risky and uncertain world

In July 2016, we attended a think tank with a group of early- and mid-career peers, at the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in Canberra.

One aim was to better understand and improve on how scientists from many disciplines can communicate their research to decision makers, including any risk and uncertainty.

science in decision-making
Cover of the report from our think tank discussions. Australian Academy of Science, Author provided
A detailed report, Living in a Risky World, from that think tank meeting is released by the AAS today. We have compiled a technical summary and here are some of highlights.

Which evidence to consider in decision-making?

All scientific research is subject to varying degrees of uncertainty. This can arise from a number of issues such as incomplete knowledge or variability in the phenomena being researched.

A goal of research is to reduce any uncertainties through study and experimentation, and to improve the accuracy by which uncertainties are defined.

Even the most scientifically-informed decision-making contains positive and negative risks resulting from the uncertainty.

The extent to which this uncertainty influences decision-making is often unclear and difficult to evaluate.

For example, published uncertainties in climate change projections have been used to rebuke and discredit scientific evidence and delay policy action.

Uncertainties associated with environmental health risks and future earthquake risks have been used to justify health, engineering and land-use policy developments of a precautionary nature.

Reporting on the status of the Great Barrier Reef in the past has omitted any form of uncertainty.

The importance of including an uncertainty assessment has now been recognised in advice to the Queensland Government. But it remains unclear how best to quantify the uncertainty and communicate it in a way that helps decision making.

The challenge for scientists

Scientists see it as best-practice to characterise and include any uncertainties in their research when publishing in peer-reviewed journals. But the scientific community lacks consensus about the most effective way to communicate science and uncertainty to decision-makers.

For example, are absolute or relative probabilities more effective when publicly communicating risk? Should uncertainties be included in weather forecasts, bushfire trajectories or tsunami inundation predictions?

Our discussions revealed that our risk communication experiences and perspectives varied across our diverse fields of expertise.

This included our use of language, our target audiences, the types of risks we communicate (economic vs life and death) and the cultures and protocols of our host institutions.

But we also found consensus. We do not live in a “post-truth” world where science evidence is offered but not considered. Nor do we live in an “ivory tower” world where science evidence is needed but not offered.

Rather, we live in a world with increasing diversity and complexity in decision-making. This world offers real challenges.

However it also provides opportunities for scientists with diverse skills and priorities to communicate and engage with decision-makers. This includes those who acquire, interpret and communicate scientific data, through to those who engage in science arbitration and advocacy.

How to improve communication with decision-makers

In our report we recommend a new plan for scientists to adopt when doing any evidence-based communication with decision-makers.

A key element of this plan is to develop a common language on risk and uncertainty communication. This will make sure lessons learned may be more easily translated across distinct scientific disciplines.

We recommend that scientists explicitly state the motivations that underlie their scientific experimentation and modelling processes. That way decision-makers can better understand the role of the science in assisting with any decision they make.

We also recommend that both scientists and decision-makers keep a record of how research evidence and uncertainty was considered in any decision-making scenarios. This should include whether the research was asked for or offered, how the evidence and uncertainties were communicated, and how all this was received and considered.

The need for feedback

If the research did influence any decision, then it will be important to know how. If the research was not used in the decision-making process, it will be important to understand why.

Was it because uncertainties were not understood, inadequately represented, or exceeded tolerable thresholds?

Perhaps the models themselves were not easy for decision-makers to understand? This could mean modifications are needed to increase their utility.

Were other societal, political or fiscal factors prioritised? Are all of these factors able to be objectively analysed and justified?

And what approaches are available to scientists who conclude that research has been unjustly used by decision-makers?

In our experience there is a large variability in the way decision-makers provide documentation on how scientific advice they received actually informed the decision making process.

Both the public and the media have a role to play in encouraging these forms of documentation.

The uptake of any science evidence and the understanding of scientific uncertainty by decision-makers remains sparsely documented. This includes any influence of public and media communications, structured science communication workshops, involvement in science advisory panels, and other science engagement strategies.

So hopefully our plan for a more unifying language across the science community, and a concerted effort to document communication experiences, should help scientists who want to contribute their work to any decision-making processes that may guide future policies.

– Mark Quigley, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne, Adrian Ickowicz, Research scientist, Data61 et. al. For the full list of authors, click here.

This article was first published by The Conversation on 1 February 2017. Read the original article here.