Can science settle controversial policy questions? (Angela Cassidy)

By Angela Cassidy

There are many parallels between the UK’s response to the arrival of COVID-19 in recent months and its much longer policy history of grappling with bovine tuberculosis. In particular, both situations expose a critical problem underlying many controversies drawing in science, policy and wider publics—the idea of “The Big Book of Science.” This is the implicit assumption that science is a monolith of immutable, authoritative facts, discovered and written by heroic, lone geniuses. While science does generate reliable knowledge (and that’s why it’s useful), it is better understood as ‘science in practice’ – an ongoing process of trying to understand the messy, complex and scary world we live in. As we are seeing with coronavirus, but also bovine Tuberculosis and many earlier examples, ‘The Science’ of this situation is uncertain, contested across multiple experts and is changing fast. Implicit assumptions about the Big Book are therefore a barrier to effective public, media and policy engagement; they also make policy incoherence, the politics of distraction, the strategic undermining of expertise and blame shifting much easier to get away with. Public acknowledgement of science in practice is therefore desperately needed to move towards more productive modes of policymaking – an essential first step would be to stop trying to

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