April 17, 2017

Myrick ’09 Highlights Role of Science in Policy-Making

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What is science’s role in policy-making? Why are scientifically validated policies sometimes rejected by the public? These were some of the questions that Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 hoped to address at an event organized by Cornell Advancing Science And Policy on April 12.

The goal of the event, ‘Take a Politician to Work Day,’ was to encourage dialogue between scientists and politicians in order to help both groups understand how they could collaborate to craft public policy. Post a tour of the research facilities at Cornell, Myrick hosted a public forum on the topic. The audience consisted of graduate students, postdocs, research staff and professors, all of whom represented the wide variety of scientific interests at Cornell.

A key concern raised by Prof. Jonathan Butcher, biomedical engineering, was the extent to which scientific methodologies are used to assess the success and failure of policies. Though the use of such methods are far from routine, Myrick emphasized important policies that were borne from rigorous scientific research. One such policy was the proposal for supervised injection sites in Ithaca. According to Myrick, the proposal was based on research carried out in similar institutes in Vancouver, Canada that highlighted the success of such sites with respect to the number of overdoses, relatively low influx of drug users from outside the city and decreasing drug use in general.

Myrick acknowledged, however, that a key hurdle in the routine use of such methodologies was unyielding public opposition even in the face of supporting scientific evidence.

“You can tell the public that you have 23 peer-reviewed studies and they still say to themselves ‘Well, I think people are going to travel,’” Myrick said in response to criticism that the opening of supervised injection sites would lead to an influx of drug users from outside Ithaca. “They don’t trust the scientific process, they trust their own judgement.”

Myrick also cites the nature of politics, driven solely by the success of policies, as something that inhibits the induction of the scientific process in policy-making. Consequently, he argues that politicians may end up implementing the tried and tested policies of their predecessors as opposed to those that have been shown to be scientifically validated but could potentially fail.

Other key issues discussed at the forum included ways in which the political system could be made to be more accepting of uncertainty in scientifically validated policy proposals and the dominant use of personal narratives to prevent the development of such policies.

Myrick also insisted that scientists should learn to convey their messages with as little technicality as possible so as to help the general public overcome their often unsupported opposition. One suggestion was that scientists could make their message more engaging by presenting it as a narrative.

“Give us three anecdotes and then say ‘and I have millions of more results that would back up [the research],’” Myrick said. “Bring politicians scientific information, bring it straight to the people who work in the administration. Get face to face with them and explain to them why it is important.”