Science policy
Capturing imaginations, not wallets and podiums
February 28, 2017
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The notion of capture—when one group in a partnership is allowed “home-field advantage”—is helpful in understanding some hurdles to successful collaboration across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries. Last week, I outlined how sectoral capture undermines the very notion of transdisciplinary research. In this week’s installment of the capture series, I’ll talk about how sectoral capture is rampant in the way that the research sphere engages with the political sphere, on two big-ticket issues specifically.

First off, let’s start by acknowledging that sectoral capture is a widespread problem, not one that’s unique to the research community. Private industry putting profit before all else is anything but an unknown problem. In fact, the whole notion of externalities could probably be re-cast in the language of capture: What is an externality except the refusal to allow someone else’s difficulties to get in the way of in your bottom line? The government sphere must also o’erleap this hurdle, including elected officials waging the permanent electoral campaign and the civil service using engagement as a tool to simply build legitimacy for positions designed before any public consultation has taken place.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that the problem of capture is widespread, and that the research community is not alone in facing this challenge. Accordingly, while I’ll explore here some of the specific challenges to which the research community must respond, I am in no way suggesting that the research community is somehow uniquely (or even primarily) responsible for the difficulties I outline here. Rather, what I mean to do is encourage conversations about how the research community can start doing better. Laying blame isn’t very helpful, but neither is waiting around for others to take the lead in addressing issues in which we all have a stake.

These various dimensions of capture leave too little room for society to engage—across its internal boundaries—to define our shared future. The future that we are building doesn’t belong to all of us, even though we all must live in it. The growing divisions between those who have power and those who don’t, along with the resentment of the former by the latter, have already fueled immense changes in the political order of things, which in turn have kindled worries in the scientific community.

As a group frequently viewed as out-of-touch elites, the research sphere can easily be perceived as worried because the system from which it benefits is changing—“simply a threat to the self-interests of the scientific community,” “yet another group that’s getting an easy ride on the backs of the masses.” While I agree that this debate treats far more important issues than merely self-interest, there have been two types of outcry from the scientific community that smack of sectoral capture, validating the sentiment that scientists are in it for their own personal gain. The two main outcries that I’m talking about here are the fear of losing funding and the fear of losing influence. If engagement with the political sphere serves simply to assure the continued flow of research funding and to ensure that scientists have privileged access to those in power, then the research sector is effectively capturing this partnership.

In addition to other functions it fulfills, science is an extremely powerful tool for knowledge creation and for informing decision-making. These functions are important underpinnings to the magnitude of public support for scientific research. These functions have great potential to benefit the public. These functions are too often blurred when we focus on the difficulties of scientists in light of policy changes. The real threat is to the public, which stands to benefit from science being robustly supported and seriously considered when society makes decisions about the future it will create—you know, when society governs itself.

But this threat often fades to the background in rhetorical treatment of science policy changes. The research community puts together cheat sheets on How to be Heard, airing concerns that “science has lost and feelings have won,” pointing reassuringly to areas where “the scientific way of thinking often dominates,” hinting to scientists about how to identify and cozy up to those who are truly “powerful in the political process”: all this to inform scientists who “want to be influential.” These quotes are all from a single source, but a similar tone is adopted widely.

Reassuringly, that same author has given much more inclusive advice, such as suggesting that scientists need to understand the policy process better, and that scientists could actually tailor their research to the decisions being made, rather than arriving with research fully cooked only to find that no one ordered what they’re serving. These facets of capture are important to overcome. We must also acknowledge and accept that some governments are going to be easier to work with than others; refusing as a community to work with those who appear unreceptive to scientific advice similarly risks the appearance of self-interest. Pre-approving the excommunication of collaborators—those who get involved because they believe that a hard-fought battle is better than surrender—also seems an unlikely strategy for pulling top talent into crucial roles, at a time when their talents are most needed.

The language we use here is hugely important. When we allow our focus to drift from contributing valuable input into the process of a society governing itself, to the funding and policy influence that are crucial tools for science to be able to accomplish this task, this imperceptibly small deviation can have a substantial impact: the research community can easily appear to be more worried about its own self-interest than about its capacity to further the common good. The tragedy is not that science might be defunded or discounted, but that our societal discussions might be impoverished by the absence of scientists at the table (through defunding and discounting). This shift in emphasis entails a change in our messaging, and an even more important shift in the way that we design and conduct research, integrate findings into governance, and implement decisions in action.

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About the author

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck works as a policy analyst at Science-Metrix in Montreal, where he puts his background in philosophy of science to good use in helping policy types and technical types to understand each other a little better every day. He also takes gleeful pleasure in unearthing our shared but buried assumptions, and generally gadfly-ing everyone in his proximity. He is interested in policy for science as well as science for policy (i.e., evidence-based decision-making), and is progressively integrating himself into the development of new bibliometric indicators at Science-Metrix to address emerging policy priorities. Before working at Science-Metrix, Brooke worked for the Canadian Federal Government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Guelph and a BA with honours in philosophy from McGill University.

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