Chris Trotter on Science and Policy

Chris Trotter, a political commentator and columnist for the Dominion Post, questions the involvement of science in policy-making.

In his column ‘From the Left’,  Trotter writes in response to  Sir Peter Gluckman’s report on adolescent health titled, ‘‘Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity during Adolescence’. The report was launched last week as an evidence base for creating polices to reduce the harms experinced by New Zealand teenagers. You can find the Science Media Centre’s Coverage of the report here.

An excerpt from Chris Trotter’s column (read in full here):

Report symptomatic of science’s deficient expertise

What a shame. To hear the news media tell it, the story of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s report to the prime minister was one of disinterested science versus ill-informed populism.

In a world dominated by soundbites and focus groups, John Key’s hand-picked scientific adviser was heroically making the case for evidence-based policies.

“Social investment in New Zealand should take more account of the growing evidence that prevention and intervention strategies applied early in life are more effective in altering outcomes and reap more economic returns over the life course than do strategies applied later.”

So says Professor Gluckman and his team – adding for good measure that: “This will require long-term commitment to appropriate policies and programmes.”

For those in the policy-making community, this must have been an “Alleluia Moment”. Could it be, that after years of denigration and marginalisation at the hands of the political class, experts and expertise were about to make a comeback?

Well, I for one hope not. At least not these “experts” or this “expertise”.

Because, reading through Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence, it quickly becomes clear that this “science” is very “interested” indeed – and not in a good way.

The history of scientific involvement in the formation of social policy is not a happy one. From the pernicious social theories of the 19th-century eugenicist Sir Francis Galton, to the authoritarian social- engineering offered up in the Trilateral Commission’s 1976 report Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies, the interventions of “disinterested science” have almost always ended up arguing for an intensification of social controls and the consequent curtailment of individual liberty.