The Society for the
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Wanted: morning after pill for science policy after fling with politics

9 December 2011

Yesterday the U.S. Health and Human Services Department overruled the extension of over the counter purchasing of the Plan B emergency contraceptive pill to girls under the age of 17. It is unusual for an administration official to veto a federal agency’s (the Food and Drug Administration) independent policy decisions and the action has drawn strong criticism from supporters of women’s rights and scientific integrity.

The controversy boils down in the media to quite striking parodies of two sides of the policy debate. On the one hand there are the parodied supporters of the action that President Obama has taken saying that the FDA’s extensive clinical trials of the Plan B drug are not enough to ensure the safety and innocence of our daughters. On the other hand there are the parodied supporters of science saying that all personal compunctions about policies that have been based on science are out of order. What should really be important here is how sound the FDA’s science is on the matter (and there is no reason to assume it isn't sound), and how much scientific integrity is really enjoyed by federal science agencies. On the second question, this latest episode suggests that political expedience has trumped science yet again.

Can we find a pill that will help us to wake up and move on from this repetitive narrative? The relationship between science-based policy and politics is complex. Politicians often heed the strength of scientific consensus shaping their policies but at other times they deny the science to meet other goals. This poses serious concerns from the point of view of scientific and human progress, and that is why we must do something about it.

But what can we do? This is an immensely difficult question to answer because it deals with systems that are incredibly complex and take great time and effort to change. Some federal agencies in the United States have made progress in updating their scientific integrity policies. Governments should be pressured to speed these processes and make a strong example in leadership. However, while it would be nice to see different values and institutional arrangements in government that protect scientific integrity, there is also an important role for scientists. Education must be part of the solution and it must be education in which scientists take a lead role. Reese Kassen at the University of Ottowa recently articulated some suggestions in Nature:

“Here are three suggestions to build greater trust between scientists and politicians.

First, improve the lines of communication. Opportunities for graduate students and scientists to carry out internships and secondments in a political environment, such as the Congressional Fellows programme run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are a start in this direction.

Second, we need scientists to stand for election to public office. Having more people on the inside of the political process who are, or have been, professional scientists should go a long way to increasing understanding among their political colleagues. It also builds trust in the scientific community for the political process.

Third, scientists need to seek opportunities to engage with politicians directly. One possibility, suggested to me once by a senator in the Canadian parliament, is for scientists to volunteer during election time to work in a candidate's office.

The aim must be to increase the receptivity of the political class to science, so that when the time comes to make decisions, science gets at least a fair hearing. This takes time. But, as the saying goes, we get the government we deserve. If, as scientists, we choose not to engage, then we will have only ourselves to blame.”

The recent National Science Writers Association annual meeting featured some interesting talks about the role of scientists as public communicators of science. I have written about one of these talks in another blog post here.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin