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When science helps governments manage risk and innovation

11 Jul 2017

Robust scientific evidence can help governments deal with threats and get the most out of new technologies, says UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport.


Image credit: Sim Shuzhen

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By Sim Shuzhen

SMU Office of Research & Tech Transfer - After a volcano in a neighbouring country erupts, when is it safe for jet planes to fly through the lingering ash cloud? What is the backup plan in the event that a massive solar flare wipes out telecommunications across the globe? How should we contain the spread of deadly infectious diseases such as new strains of pandemic influenza and Ebola? Each of these naturally occurring scenarios thrusts governments into uncertain situations where difficult choices must be made, and made quickly.

In parallel, man-made innovations such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and the Internet of Things generate a range of issues that also require governments to make complex decisions with large social and economic impacts.

How can policy-makers undertake weighty decisions in a systematic, evidence-based manner? In the UK, civil servants and politicians do so with help from the Government Office for Science, which provides them with the best available scientific evidence to evaluate policy options.

Heading this office is UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport, who mobilises expertise from within government as well as from external sources such as universities and international experts to provide scientifically grounded, evidence-based input into complex discussions.

“Faced with an enormous agenda, what governments should care about is the health, well-being, resilience and security of their citizens,” said Sir Mark, who was speaking on the topic of ‘Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It’ at Singapore Management University (SMU) on 16 June 2017.

Data-driven decision-making

Science and technology are a critically important part of the infrastructure that underpins the health and security of our societies, said Sir Mark, who was in Singapore to attend the 2017 Commonwealth Science Conference.

At the same time, the complexity and unpredictability of the policy issues at hand, together with rapid technological progress, means that government policy-makers will never have all the information they need to make a completely informed decision.

“The world I live in – the world of policy-makers – is always one of trade-offs and decisions that have to be made in face of incomplete evidence,” said Sir Mark.

A medical doctor by training, Sir Mark drew an analogy to the clinic. Doctors, he said, do not have the luxury of telling patients to wait until more studies have been done – they have to recommend a course of treatment based on the information available to them at that moment.

“That's often the position scientific advisors are in when providing advice to governments,” he explained. “Part of the job is also to explain the uncertainty – what you don't know – as well as what you do.” 

The importance of being open

Innovations such as gene editing, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and artificial intelligence can bring enormous benefits to society; yet they can also carry substantial risks. Another of Sir Mark’s roles as Government Chief Scientific Advisor is to facilitate open, non-partisan discussion between scientists, the government and the general public about how new technologies should be applied and about the nature of the risks involved.

In these discussions, technology should not be thought of in a generic sense, said Sir Mark. GMOs, for example, remain a contentious subject, with some people taking the values-based view that they are harmful to health. But every GMO is different – its safety and biological properties depend on the specific pairing of a particular gene in a particular organism.

“Technology can be used for good and bad purposes, wisely or unwisely,” explained Sir Mark. “To make sensible decisions, we always need to consider them in the context of specific uses.”

It is also important to direct the conversation around the appropriate issues, he said. For example, some people vigorously argue for labelling all GMOs unsafe, when their actual motivation is that they believe, for religious or personal reasons, that it is wrong to meddle with nature.

Democratic societies should recognise that it is perfectly legitimate for people to advocate views based on religious, personal or philosophical beliefs, said Sir Mark. But it is counterproductive to conflate a discussion about scientific evidence with a discussion about other beliefs and values, he emphasised.

“We'd be much better off if we had open discussions where we are clear about the scientific evidence, while also clearly articulating views based on other types of considerations – cultural values and religious or philosophical beliefs, for example,” said Sir Mark.

In this way, societies will be able to consider the scientific evidence, including its uncertainties, in parallel with views formed from other perspectives. Policy-makers can then make decisions on how to balance these concerns, acknowledging that both science-based facts and other considerations factor into the final decision, he added.

Another area of intense public discussion is embryonic research, which has deeply religious and personal significance for many people, said Sir Mark. “The only way to deal with this in democratic societies is through debate, but this needs to be done on scientific terms.”

In the UK, a recent example of this was the December 2016 decision to allow mitochondrial replacement therapy – a controversial technique that combines genetic material from three people (two eggs and one sperm) so that families can avoid passing on mitochondrial genetic diseases.

“While some groups were concerned with morality, from a public health perspective, it came down to whether it was safe scientifically,” said Sir Mark, adding that this was an example where good regulation on the part of the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority saw the country through the issue.  

The multiple lenses of policy-making

Scientific advisors must contend with many more instances of science and technology running up against values, said Sir Mark. One such issue is ensuring that poorer countries have access to technologies and products developed by richer ones. This becomes especially contentious when poorer countries are themselves the source of the information used in developing these technologies.

For example, consider a situation where a pharmaceutical company uses the genetic sequences of virus strains from an outbreak in an under-developed country to make a vaccine. If the company then attempts to sell the vaccine back to that country at high cost, this raises complicated ethical and economic issues.

Other issues include whether policies are politically acceptable to the general public, and whether they can be effectively implemented. While scientists and scientific advisors are trained to focus on evidence, they must also keep in mind that this is not the only lens through which policy-makers and politicians must view the issues, said Sir Mark.

“Ultimately, policy-making is the integral of the three lenses of evidence, political acceptability and the ability for public delivery, and scientists who don't understand that find it very difficult to be advisors,” said Sir Mark. “That is the challenge of being the policy-maker who has to make the final decision – looking through those lenses, integrating them and managing the trade-offs.”

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Last updated on 11 Jul 2017 .