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General public willing to support science-based policies, according to new Birkbeck report

Last week the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and the United States’ President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology made a joint statement which draws on the research.

Person using science equipment in a laboratory

A new Birkbeck, University of London report has reviewed public perceptions on the role of science in policymaking, as part of a British Academy review for the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology (CST). 

The research, undertaken by Birkbeck academics Dr Laszlo Horvath, Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, and Professor Deborah Mabbett , Professor of Public Policy, indicated a public willingness to engage with scientific content: they found    policymakers who draw on science advice are seen as more competent and, in turn, more trusted.  

The report also finds that people have strong democratic sensibilities when it comes to how policies should be adopted. A perception that public opinion is siding with policy proposals, and that public consultation has taken in place, are sometimes regarded as more important than whether it received science advice.  

The researchers suggest democracy and science can be reconciled by promoting public involvement in the creation of scientific knowledge. For example, citizen sensing groups    could collect local air pollution data to inform policy. 

In addition, the researchers found that local data collection by local research universities were usually seen as best placed to inform to future course of policy. 

Two methods were used to gather information: the academics reviewed how scientific evidence is covered in the media, policy documents and in parliamentary debates; and used surveys and survey experiments to explore the public’s response to science in policymaking. 

Dr Laszlo Horvath commented: "We found little evidence to suggest a crisis in trust. Citizens agree ‘competent’ decision-making should incorporate science. However, it is equally important for them that their voice is being heard. Issues like clean air zones and ULEZ taught us that citizens in opposition to these policies were often still open to engaging with scientific evidence. Yet they expect the policy -making process to integrate this with local concerns.”  

The research has contributed to a new report by The British Academy, commissioned by the CST. The report, Public Trust in Science-for-Policymaking, says that the UK public wants nuance and transparency when science is used to inform government policy. It also points out that the general public are more likely to trust science-informed policy when any gaps in evidence are not obscured but set out clearly.  

Professor Christina Boswell, Vice President of Public Policy at the British Academy, said: “Post-Covid, we’re all aware of how important science is in creating policies that keep the public safe and healthy. From health to human behaviour, policy rooted in any science can be tricky to communicate, and our report shows that it’s crucial that policymakers get this right when speaking to the public. People value clear explanations of the science behind policy decisions, without political influence, and they want to know about gaps in knowledge or evidence – even though this means communicating that there isn’t 100 per cent certainty on an issue. We hope policymakers will use this report to ensure the UK's diverse communities feel confident in government decisions informed by science.” 

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