In a world of fake news, scientific facts are more important than ever - but so is engaging with the realities of politics

10 February 2017

Portrait of Anushya Devendra

by Anushya Devendra

Anushya Devendra joined the Oxford Martin School in 2013, having previously worked for NGOs and thinktanks in London. She has a bachelor's degree in international relations and a master's degree in political science, both from the London School of Ec...

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© Sally-Anne Stewart/Oxford Martin School

At the end of January the Oxford Martin School welcomed Professor Sir Peter Gluckman for a three-day visit. Sir Peter has 41 letters after his name (yes, I counted), and I therefore can’t write out all of his accolades and roles, but amongst these are his position as the current, and first, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Science Envoy for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Chair of the International Network for Governmental Science Advice. Sir Peter is, therefore, a prominent international advocate for science, science diplomacy and the science-policy interface.

His visit was brief but we will be welcoming him back, having brought him to the School under the auspices of our Visiting Fellows programme, which is designed to bring in distinguished guests to act as a catalyst to the School’s research work. During Sir Peter’s visit, he met directors of seven School research programmes as well as senior academics from other parts of the University; he also spoke at an event on digital horizons convened for Oxford academics interested in applying for School funding for new research programmes; and, finally, participated in a lively panel debate discussing the role of expert advice in today’s policymaking, where he was joined by Dr Gemma Harper (DEFRA) and Professor Stefan Dercon (DFID and the Blavatnik School of Government).

‘Impact’ has always been a focus of the Oxford Martin School, and we define it broadly; the research we fund should have a place beyond the dreaming spires of Oxford, in informing government policy, in advising corporate leaders, in enlightening the wider public, and in inspiring practitioners and activists. This was a key component of Dr James Martin’s vision for the School, and is firmly embedded within all of our work.

But the School does not operate in a vacuum. These are tumultuous times. We have ‘post-truths’ and ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, and have allegedly ‘had enough of experts’. While colleagues across the University, in centres including the Blavatnik School and the Oxford Internet Institute, are examining these specific political and cultural phenomena in detail, at the School we have increasingly been reflecting on the position of academic experts within this complex landscape. This includes ruminating on the role of experts in advising policymakers and in navigating complex values issues as well as the realities of politics (Sir Peter reminded us throughout his visit that policy has never been purely evidence-based; it has only ever been evidence-informed). It also involves meditating upon the position of academic experts vis-à-vis the wider public: for example whether academics are guilty of operating in echo chambers, and whether a greater focus should be placed on educating the public on scientific methods, statistics, and issues of uncertainty.

Most of all, we have been thinking about how gaps between experts, publics, and policymakers might be bridged. When we briefly discussed these issues at the aforementioned panel event, emphasis was placed by panellists on the importance of experts asking themselves how they have used evidence to change their own views; the need for experts to be cognisant of the fact that evidence – and there are multiple definitions of evidence – will only play a part alongside economic, social and political considerations in the formulation of policy; and the importance of public values being integrated at the earliest stages of policymaking.

We will return to these issues throughout 2017 and beyond, through public events, social media outreach and discussions within the School community. We will also do so by continuing to bring world-leading practitioners to the School, through our Visiting Fellows programme, encouraging exchange between our academics and eminent policymakers. This month and next month, for example, we are delighted to be hosting Dr Carlos Lopes, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

If you wish to discuss any of this or the School’s policy work more broadly, please do get in touch.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.