The importance of using science and evidence to inform government policy

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Tea and Talk with the RSE
The importance of using science and evidence to inform government policy

The first episode of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Tea and Talk podcast introduces RSE President, Professor Dame Anne Glover about the importance of using science and scientific evidence to inform government policy, how these have been used in the UK during the current Covid-19 crisis, and the launch of the RSE’s Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission.

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Episode transcript

Please note transcriptions are automatically generated so may feature errors.

Rebekah: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the  RSEs Tea and Talk podcast series. A program inspired by the coffee houses of the 18th century, where great thinkers would come together to discuss ideas and matters of the day. Im, Rebecca Widdowfield and I’m chief executive of the RSE, which is the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and is Scotland’s National Academy. 

[00:00:25] Our mission is to advance learning and make knowledge useful, and as part of that, I’m having a series of conversations with some of Scotland’s leading authorities on a whole range of topics, starting with exploring different perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic. The conversations are all with fellows of the RSE who are keen to share their expertise and experience.

[00:00:44] On this week, I’m speaking with RSE President, Professor Dame Anne Glover. Professor Glover is a microbiologist but was also Scotland’s first Chief Scientific Advisor,  and also served as Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission from 2012 to 2014. 

[00:01:01] So we’re not in a coffee house, we’re both in our own homes, which explains the occasional dip in sound quality. But I’d encourage you to grab yourself a drink of something, sit back and listen to one of Scotland’s leading experts talk about things that matter.

[00:01:14] Anne, science is used in all sorts of different ways and, and people doing science do different things. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about sort of what first got you interested in policy and working in that kind of environment. 

[00:01:31] Anne: [00:01:31] Well, as a, as a research scientist, Id very much enjoyed working on my own research topic and working with others in the lab and research.

[00:01:41] But then as your career progresses, you get involved much more on how research is funded and the questions around that. And as part of my interest in that, I joined the council of the Natural Environment Research Council, who fund the UKs environmental research. And as part of being on the council, we then had to discuss with UK treasury, how we would determine what funding we had for the natural environment research council.

[00:02:14] And that gave me an insight into how persuasive you had to be, about the value of the knowledge, just that you were generating for your research and how to position that, to identify for government who, and in this case, UK treasury, who had their hands on the purse strings. Is to how to persuade them that there was real value for people in the UK for providing us with funding and that our job would be to ensure that the knowledge that we generated would then have impact back into the economy and for our environment and quality of life. I think it was that, you know, having had a successful research lab, I wanted to make sure that the knowledge that was being generated was used cause the public pay for the generation of the knowledge.

[00:03:08] Rebekah: [00:03:08] So a real focus on the, sort of the, the application of that, that research and knowledge. And I guess from your diverse experience over a number of years, you’ll seen, places where our knowledge and science is being used particularly well in government and in policy and other areas where it’s being used less well.

[00:03:25] But I wonder if you could maybe give us a couple of examples of where you’ve been involved or where you speak, seeing science being used in a really positive way to inform and influence government decision making. 

[00:03:36] Anne: [00:03:36] Yeah, I think a good example, and one focused on Scotland was the gathering of evidence and its application on developing policy to be able to address people’s exposure, to smoke from people smoking in public places, cigarette smoking in public places.

[00:03:56] And that, that was a really good example of evidence being gathered about the air quality. following that up with data, which came from our health services about people presenting at hospitals. And this would be young people working perhaps in pubs and bars who didn’t smoke themselves, but were exposed to a lot of smoke but in an enclosed space, and looking at their respiratory health, I suppose. and then government developed a policy in Scotland to ban the smoking, ban smoking in public places. And after developing a policy and implementing it, then more data was gathered to see what impact had it on, for example, people presenting at hospital with respiratory disease, and I think that in the, in the first year after implementation of the policy, there was, quite a remarkable decline in the number of people presenting.

[00:04:57] So a huge impact, positive impact on public health. Now that’s an example of identifying a problem, gathering the evidence, developing options for policy, determining the best option. And that’s a policy maker and a political decision. The scientist is kind of being moved. is, is somewhat down the food chain from that.

[00:05:21] But then, once it’s been implemented, following it up – because you want to know if you implement a policy; cause not all policies will be perfect for very good reasons. But then determining what has worked and whether that was a successful policy. So that’s just one example for me of, of excellent evidence-based policymaking.

[00:05:44] Rebekah: [00:05:44] And a really powerful example, and one that has gone on to have, you know, huge impacts obviously on the quality of life and on, on life expectancy.

[00:05:52] I mean, from the example, or just from your experience of being, you know, a chief scientific advisor, are there particular things that you think helped in the evidence being used constructively and in that example or others, you know, what, what, what is it that really can support science being used in policymaking and its development?

[00:06:12] Anne: [00:06:12] Well, I, I think it has to be in an area where there’s strong public interest. So people, most, most citizens are very interested in health and, how to improve health or, or how to be able to be in healthy environments. and there was another, if you like, a more pragmatic issue. And that is that if you look at our budget in Scotland; I think public  spending budget, the majority of the spend of the budget is in the NHS in Scotland. So with an aging population, and when you get older, the last 10 years of your life are normally when you are putting the most strain on the health service. Then I think, from government’s point of view, government wanted a way to try and reduce demand on the health service. 

[00:07:06] And public health is a very good way to approach that because in many ways it’s preventative action. You’re not waiting until somebody gets ill. You’re trying to prevent them getting ill in the first place. So I think why it worked well is that there had been a lot of discussion about exposure to passive smoking; government understood that there was a substantial demand on health services from people presenting with these respiratory problems. And so, in a way it was a little bit like a marriage made in heaven because the science could be used in quite a, in an area, which didn’t have much controversy surrounding it, there’s there are always people who say, I don’t want to be told not to smoke or, you know, and, and you’d expect that and I actually, I don’t criticize that. It’s good for people to speak out about what’s important to them, but the evidence was fairly overwhelming. So it was a low risk strategy for government, to develop policy and it was also easy to identify what sorts of policy, you could implement. So it’s, it’s actually fairly easy to say you can no longer smoke in a public place.

[00:08:22] And also, it’s quite easy to police. So all the ducks were in a row. That’s why it worked. 

[00:08:29] Rebekah: [00:08:29] And I think one of the interesting things about what you were saying, there is actually the combination of different types of science and evidence that are brought together. So the sort of the behavioral side of things as well, and thinking about the sort of public acceptibility, and, and obviously we’re seeing the use of behavioral science in, in the current, work, dealing with the pandemic.

[00:08:47] I mean, maybe, turning to that. How, how do you feel, personally that science is being used at the moment, in terms of supporting the response to the coronavirus pandemic, does it reassure you how it’s being used? Do you have any concerns about how it’s being used? 

[00:09:06] Anne: [00:09:06] it’s very interesting at the moment because one of the things that, I hear UK government saying a lot is that they are either being guided by the science or they are using the science and that’s determining their actions regarding, the current  coronavirus, pandemic. it’s interesting to me that I can’t actually answer your question and say what science is being used because that isn’t in the public domain. I mean, we do know that, so the, the SAGE group, which is a science advisory group, for emergencies. They meet and they will be analyzing data. They will be communicating with government and that will be translated into the implementation of some of the policies that we’re seeing; the most successful one being social distancing. 

[00:10:05] and I think that it would be good to hear a bit more about what science was being used. If only that if you know, what’s being used then the huge number, we’re a very research, intensive country, particularly Scotland, but the UK in general, and then scientists, engineers, technologists, social scientists can all look at the evidence and can question or challenge it in, in a positive way, you know, constructive challenge to say, have you, did you take this into account? Is this known? And it helps to refine the evidence. and that would be good, I think. I I’d like to see more transparency.

[00:10:49]Rebekah: [00:10:49] And, and that’s, I think that’s a really interesting sort of insight, I guess, in terms of the way science is done, being very much a collaborative exercise that actually where knowledge builds on other knowledge, rather than being, you know, one set truth.

[00:11:03] I mean, do you think there are any circumstances where, it’s reasonable for government to be, if not necessarily withholding evidence in science, but delaying its publication, I’m thinking particularly, maybe areas where science is developing, how, how would you be advising ministers to, in that sort of setting?

[00:11:23] Anne: [00:11:23] I think that there are quite a lot of areas where you would not be open with the scientific evidence. And that might be because there were some commercial sensitivity around the evidence that was being produced. It might be because there was, there were real security issues; such as like a cybersecurity.

[00:11:40] If we were developing the use of data science, artificial intelligence to underpin a cyber security approach, to keeping Britain safe from hacking attacks and so on. Then I think it would probably be best that you didn’t divulge what the scientific thinking was underpinning it, because then you’re providing the, the very gaps that I’m talking about; you would be exposing those and they could be exploited by the people that you’re actually trying to defend against and the case of cybersecurity. 

[00:12:13] So I do see in many instances, when you might choose not to make the evidence, open and available, but I would argue that if currently, for example, with, the coronavirus pandemic, this is exactly the time where it’s useful to have the evidence out there in the public domain so that people can pick over it. I’ll give you an example, right at the very beginning, it seems like a long time ago, but if we, if we remember back, there was a discussion that we might just let the virus flow through the population. And, that thinking was probably based on historical approaches to seasonal flu, influenza and to a large extent that happens, with influenza epidemics. However, we didn’t know very much about this virus. so we should, so a lot of people would have been, if we knew that we were using thinking around influenza virus, people might’ve said, but this isn’t influenza virus and that would have been a sort of pause for thought for the scientists involved in providing evidence.

[00:13:32] The reason is that influenza virus, it’s normally a one for one, like I might infect you, but not many other people. Whereas we know that this coronavirus, one person can infect up to three other people. And that means a massive and very rapid infection. So you probably have to deal with it differently.

[00:13:55] and we perhaps could have got, it’s very easy to speak with hindsight, but we might’ve got to a better position. And for me, that would have been, locking down much more quickly to prevent the level of death that we’re currently seeing in the UK, which, which is uncomfortable, where we’ve got a very high number of of deaths from this virus. 

[00:14:23] Rebekah: [00:14:23] So, so it sounds from what you’re saying, there is that, I mean, just the key importance of openness, wherever possible, accepting that there’ll be in some situations that’s not always possible, but openness, both in terms of, an ability then to enable other scientists to develop and build on the knowledge and expertise to enhance understanding that we can then deal with something better, but also about, the transparency and trust with the public. I mean, I do remember quite early on SAGE did publish some of their reports and it was like a whole list of reports. And as even somebody from a research background, it was quite difficult to interrogate and think, well, what’s that telling me?

[00:15:01] How is this being weighed up against other evidence or indeed against the different evidence that was being presented? How can government and how can scientists communicate to best effect to the public on issues that are often really, really complex and often quite technical. I mean, have you got any tips for how, how that’s best done?

[00:15:20] Anne: [00:15:20] Yeah, I I’ve been very impressed by a number of scientists who have gone to the trouble of, you know, making short videos or, producing animations; actually, some people might have seen the one that I liked the best, which is a large area with mouse traps on it, with a ping pong bowl in each mouse trap.

[00:15:43] And all the mouse traps are close together. And if you throw in an additional ping pong ball, they all fly off, it’s like a chain reaction and every single one, propels its ping pong ball into the air. But if you do the same thing, but you just move the mouse traps further away from each other and you throw in a ping pong ball, hardly any most traps go off.

[00:16:09] And what that is a brilliant visualization for is how social distancing prevents transmission of a very infective virus. So I think scientists and politicians, to be honest, need to use a visual representation where they can, they need to use nontechnical language because, Yeah. You know, people talk about, you know, how infectious viruses and they call it the R number. Well, actually that’s not, you know, for a member of the public, R number, it doesn’t really help. So you need to be extremely clear. And just to be honest, if I look at the SAGE committee, for example, I wouldn’t expect them to be publishing all the minutes of the meeting. Yeah, who said what and when and so on, but it would be very good to have a summary of the evidence.

[00:17:05] It would be good to say, you know, what the recommendations might be, because what I would be anxious about and I’m not trying to protect because I’m a scientist. I’m not trying to protect scientists, but there is a danger that if you’re saying we’re guided by the science and you don’t tell anyone what the science is, you’re almost setting the science up to be the fall guy, you know, is that, you know, somehow we can blame the science.

[00:17:33] And I think there’s a danger of that in policymaking. cause often. You know, sometimes I would hear politicians say things like there isn’t, the science is not certain on this. Therefore we’re not going to do it. And if I know the area that they’re talking about, I’ll think, well, actually the science is as certain as it’s ever going to be on this, but you’re choosing to somehow pin it on the science and use that as your rationale for not doing something that you really don’t want to do in the first place.

[00:18:05] So in an ideal world, what I would love to see is that, all of us in research, we produce knowledge. we should make sure that that knowledge is at the disposal of governments to help them make evidence based decisions, evidence based policy. Cause they will be robust. They’ll be resilient and long lasting if they’re based on evidence. But I think it’s also beholden on the receiver of that evidence, government to say that we’ve, we’ve received this evidence and for certain reasons we are not going to follow the evidence in this case. And I actually also think that’s perfectly okay. As long as you’re transparent about it.

[00:18:53] I can give you an example of that if you want, or is that helpful? 

[00:18:58] Rebekah: [00:18:58] No, it is I was just thinking, I mean, you know, having worked in government, both as an analyst and on the policy side, I mean, you know, policy is very hard as, you know, as well. I mean, it’s often very, very challenging that, you know, there’s trade offs and competing things that governments are trying to achieve. And I think in the context of the current pandemic, the decisions and the different type of evidence that needs to be used, will be multiple. So being able to explain that to the public seems really important.

[00:19:27] I mean, I think in terms of what you’re saying about, the sort of communication, I guess social media has enabled, the science to be communicated at, and reached by many more people in different and more creative ways. I guess it’s also enabled us to learn from what’s happening elsewhere. And in other countries, I wonder if you, if you think there’s other countries who are using science at this moment in time in a, in a particularly good fashion, 

[00:19:55] Anne: [00:19:55] So we have the advantage because other countries have been faced with the spread of coronavirus more quickly than we have in the UK.

[00:20:03] So we could have looked. And we did have the advantage of being able to look and see what was happening in Italy, but in terms of, different responses, Denmark and New Zealand have both decided that what they would do is a mass amount of testing. Of tracing contacts and isolating, and that’s resulted in a very much reduced death rate in those countries.

[00:20:32] And that strategy was informed by evidence. So, that was, a very good  way to go. interestingly, I’ve, I’ve just been speaking to somebody from Albania who was talking about, her parents have been in isolation for 47 days cause they’ve locked down much earlier in Albania. And, so they have very few deaths. And I was asking you know, so why did they do that? And that was a slightly different approach. That was an identification that the health service would not be able to cope. And so the only thing that they could do was to try and prevent any spread. And so people have used evidence in different ways. 

[00:21:19] I think in the UK, and again, it’s a use of evidence. But the UK would have been wanting to protect the economy. And that would have been one of the main issues because without doubt our economy, will be harmed by current lockdown conditions. but the weight may have been much more on protecting the economy and may slightly have, as you said, is about balance and might have been thinking that we could manage with an increased spread and unfortunately, the, the number of deaths that, that, that would entail.

[00:22:02] So we’ve all used evidence differently. It’s not that one country has used it and one hasn’t, it’s that we’ve chosen what evidence we use and we’ve chosen different responses to that evidence. 

[00:22:16] Rebekah: [00:22:16] And I guess I’m coming back to your point about the need to sort of evaluate things afterwards in terms of what’s worked, or hasn’t worked with something that’s moving so quickly, but there will be some really important lessons to be learned afterwards about how do we support resilience in the face of whether it’s another pandemic or something else.

[00:22:37] I mean, one of the things we’ve seen from the scientific community is that is a really phenomenal response in terms of coming together to try and address the issue, to think about what’s required. There was an article in The Times higher just today or yesterday about whether this is sort of helping break down disciplinary silos. I wondered if you’ve got any sort of thoughts or reflections in terms of how science is done and how, how research is done. 

[00:23:01] Anne: [00:23:01] I do think that science responds very well, and i’m using science and engineering or science to mean both, but and  all different types of science, but scientists do respond very well. And when I was, two times I’ve been a chief scientific advisor in different circumstances, and I was always absolutely stunned and enormously grateful with the generosity that people have in providing evidence and to, to support the analysis of that evidence, and look for uncertainties and so on. Extremely helpful. But I think that you’re right in terms of, how we do science. So historically we’ve all put our specialism and a very small narrow box. And we, when I studied my first degree, which was in biochemistry, I mean, I just thought about biochemistry. That’s all I thought really mattered. Whereas a successful biochemist today in research would be speaking to data analysts, be thinking about cyber security, looking at analytics with the different immobilized chips, being able to do rapid high throughput screening.

[00:24:22] We might talk to physicists or material scientists about different things that we could do. And, and I, I know laterally in my research career that’s what I also did. and actually it was very much better. Because we’re all in danger of speaking to people who are just like us, cause it’s a comfortable space to be in.

[00:24:46] But actually it’s very much more interesting speaking to people who are not like you, because it, it broadens your mind. to all sorts of different possibilities and allows you to be much more creative and inventive. So, some of the best conversations I’ve had are with people who are outside my area of specialism and it, it also comes back to a point you made earlier.

[00:25:14] It also instills in us the discipline not to use, very subject specific terms that nobody else will understand. We have to make our language general in order to be able to, you know, to communicate effectively and get something out of the discussion. And I I’d argue that the best scientists are also, can also be very, very good at simplifying and making clear what they’re talking about without having to use specialist language that just acts as a barrier. 

[00:25:56] Rebekah: [00:25:56] Yeah. I mean, I think it will be interesting to see if actually the current situation will help reinforce and accelerate the move towards more interdisciplinarity.

[00:26:07] I mean, it’s interesting. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy is quite different from other academies, you know, in terms of encompassing the breadth of academia, but also reaching into public service and business. And, and I wonder if you could say a little bit about how you think, the science being used and scientists working alongside industry at the moment in time, you know, what’s that teaching us?

[00:26:29] Anne: [00:26:29] Well, I think it’s a, it’s an enormous strength because, if you, if you just keep anybody in a box with their specialist knowledge, they don’t really appreciate the possibilities of how that knowledge can be applied. That’s one of the enormous strengths of the RSE as Scotland’s National Academy is that we bring the best of contribution across the whole spectrum of society.

[00:26:54] And we bring that together under the roof of the 

[00:26:57] Rebekah: [00:26:57] RSE. And, our, our whole 

[00:27:00] Anne: [00:27:00] purpose as  you said about knowledge made useful is to get that knowledge and to put it at the disposal; and it’s not individual packets of specialist knowledge, it’s synthesizing that knowledge together and then providing that for government, in policymaking, for business in terms of opportunity for our creative arts and music in Scotland, but probably most importantly, just for individual citizens, we are there for the people of Scotland to put knowledge at their disposal. To make Scotland the best it possibly can be. And, that’s, that’s our mission. And that can only be done by breaking down the barriers between the different disciplines and between things like business, theater, the arts, music, poetry, and nuclear physics, virology, 18th century history; whatever your specialism is you’ve got something to contribute. 

[00:28:13] And we are the channel that allows that excellence of contribution to be channeled into society for society’s benefit. 

[00:28:23] Rebekah: [00:28:23] Thank you, and I guess what comes across as just like RSE, you know, individually, you’ve really got a very clear commitment to the research and the work that you do, having an impact and making a difference. I mean, clearly you’ve been in very, very senior roles and those specialist roles, both in government and in academia. Have you got any advice for a sort of maybe somebody who’s a more junior in their career? Who’s, who’s really interested in policy, really keen to make a difference, but doesn’t quite know how to go about and say, what would you, where would you, where should they start?

[00:28:57] Anne: [00:28:57] Well, if they were interested, then I would, I would be delighted that that was the case. So, I think a lot of people, scientists don’t like to put their head above the parapet, you know, they’re afraid of taking that risk and, and stepping into these different environments. So, what would I suggest they do?

[00:29:16] Well, I’m president of the RSE; so I’m going to say this, but one of the things that I would do is, the RSE is open and welcoming to all. I mean, you can actually physically just walk into our building on George Street, but you can certainly get in touch with us. And you can say that, you know, I work in an area, the knowledge I generate, I think could be useful for society or policy-making or whatever. Who can I talk to? And we’ve got a number of terrific staff at the RSE who work at this interface. The executive team between knowledge and society, and so can help translate that. Also, if you’re in Scottish, in Scotland rather, Scottish government generally, I think is open to feeding in ideas and that can be done through, more local groups and organizations; it can be done through institutes maybe for where you work or your university, if you work in a university. So there are lots of channels and you just need to start asking. 

[00:30:26] I know, I think that the, the most important thing is appreciating that the knowledge that you’re generating could be useful and you’re feeling that it’s your, it’s your obligation in a way, it’s your responsibility to get that knowledge laid out for the benefit of, populations, whether it’s people in Scotland, the UK, or globally. 

[00:30:54] Rebekah: [00:30:54] Thank you very much, Professor Dame Anne Glover for sharing your knowledge and expertise today around the use of scientific evidence in policy making and contributing to our first, Tea and Talk podcast series.

[00:31:07] Thank you. 

[00:31:08] Anne: [00:31:08] Thank you.