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16/09/2014

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Policymakers and scientists

Katrina Williams has some tips for fruitful collaboration

Katrina Williams has some tips for fruitful collaboration.

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I am not a scientist by training. My background (whisper it) is a degree in English Language and Literature. But, as a policymaker who has worked mostly in scientifically-driven areas of policy over almost 30 years, I’ve worked with, relied on and debated with scientists and other specialists across the Civil Service and beyond.  I offer here a few tips for success, and some thoughts on the challenges facing policymakers and scientists in government.

The ‘dumb’ question

The seemingly dumb - ‘why do you do that?’, ‘why do you think that?’ - can often be transformational in challenging assumptions which may be flawed. Take the major review of food hygiene legislation a few years ago: constantly asking ‘why does that matter?’ led us to the real reason for intervening (the outcome desired) and a focus on managing risks rather than prescribing the height to which individual premises needed to be tiled. Both sides need the patience, respect and confidence to ask and answer such questions: it’s worth having the conversation upfront which sets those qualities as rules. 

The right questions

The question asked at the commissioning stage of a project may – unconsciously - skew the answer, or lead to evidence being used to support a conclusion it can’t reasonably bear.  Effort upfront, policymakers and specialists together teasing out the question to be answered, saves time later and leads to better results.

Culture and language 

Policymakers like consensus. As a policymaker by both training and nature, the first time I chaired a meeting in which two scientists entered into vigorous ‘debate’ (all-out fisticuffs, more like), my first instincts were to negotiate peace. Which would have been wrong: without the debate, we would have failed to get to the heart of the question we needed to resolve. As the debaters left the meeting arm-in-arm to go for a beer, I learnt an important lesson about one of the ways in which the scientific and policy making cultures differ.

There are some others: make sure early on that you have the same vocabulary (not everyone understands what ‘zoonotic’ means): that when you use a word, you all mean the same thing. When there is disagreement, explain clearly why (I fondly remember explaining to an expert why the positioning of wind-turbines wasn’t – for reasons of politics – simply a matter of mathematical calculation as to the best site).

To me, the best policies come from multidisciplinary teams working together and challenging each other to produce shared solutions to clearly defined problems.

I see three future challenges for us in the way government commissions and uses science.

Innovating with tight resources

We need to make sure that the proper pressure to account for results does not cut our capacity to fund the Blue Sky piece of work which, whilst not related to a current project, may lead to a breakthrough five, ten or 20 years down the line. All thoughts gratefully received on more concrete mechanisms for creating space to innovate.

Looking outside

We need to get better at using existing sources of work and collaborating with others. We’ll need to develop the skills of peer review alongside those of commissioning, and find ways of attracting, skilling and retaining the best experts in this new environment. And we need to find ways of using work generated from commercially-funded sources whilst guaranteeing the integrity of the science involved.

Communication

The clear, informative communication of complex scientific issues will remain a priority: another area where the science/policy making team can be powerful.

Back to where I started – my favourite dumb question starting ‘Come again??’

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Katrina Williams
Katrina Williams is Director General of Strategy, Evidence and Customers at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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