Science blog

22 November 2013

Decision making in the twilight of uncertainty

Johanna Kieniewicz writes on her impressions from the Living With Environmental Change partnership’s annual assembly.

At the Living With Environmental Change partnership’s annual assembly, Defra’s Chief Science Adviser, Dr. Ian Boyd, presented a stark statistic: in a recent Defra focus group, two thirds of the participants reported that they distrusted scientists. Although we didn’t discover the context for this revelation, many of us walked away from the meeting thinking about how we could do better. How can we ensure more policy-relevant science? How can we communicate it better? And how can we reassure the general public that uncertainty in science is perfectly normal and is not a reason for distrust?

At this same meeting, I was delighted to present on the Science Team’s Envia project. Envia is a tool to improve the discovery and access of environmental information, and it fits the aims of this meeting nicely: that is, to provide researchers, policymakers and practitioners with the evidence and tools they need to make sound decisions in an uncertain world. With a general theme of ‘decision making in the twilight of uncertainty’, the LWEC Assembly brought together a wide range of academics, representatives from research councils and government bodies such as Defra and the Environment Agency, to discuss challenges pertaining to uncertainty and how they might be overcome. Perhaps most importantly, how can we best equip our decision makers with the evidence they need to make sound decisions pertaining to climate change, bovine tuberculosis, or our energy future—when the repercussions of actions taken in any of these areas are far from certain?


Dave Rafaelli presenting at LWEC 2013
Dave Rafaelli (U. York) presenting at LWEC 2013

So, while we at the British Library would like to think that we are doing our part around developing an evidence base that is suitable for use by researchers and practitioners alike, we recognise this is one small part of a much bigger picture. Ultimately, this information must be drawn together, synthesised in a way that enables policymakers to make sound decisions based on all the available evidence. And areas of uncertainty should be laid out clearly. Boyd emphasised the importance of scientists presenting balanced arguments, where all evidence is laid bare.  Although we, as scientists (who are also citizens), might personally advocate a particular solution, when communicating in a professional context we must remain unbiased. To be clear, there needs to be the appropriate weighting given to evidence – if 95% of the evidence points one way, we wouldn’t expect the small proportion of contrary evidence to be given the same level of attention. In order for the public to trust scientists, they need to know that we aren’t reading the evidence to see only what we would like to see in it.

With presentations looking at how individual research projects are dealing with uncertainty, including perspectives from the social sciences, here are a few nuggets of wisdom that I thought it would be useful to pass on:

  • Scientists should always be honest about what they don’t know. The sources of uncertainty in their models should be explicit — and they need to communicate those limitations with humility. While it might be tempting to give policymakers ‘simple’ answers, scientists must keep the complexity intact. Politicians are accustomed to weighing up complex situations and multiple sources of data. When it comes to making potentially irreversible decisions pertaining to the environment, giving policymakers the whole story is essential both to sound decision-making and establishing trust.
  • Uncertainty isn’t a completely foreign concept to most people. We all live in an uncertain world, and have to make decisions based on our best guesses. From choosing whether or not to bring an umbrella with us when we leave the house, to playing card games, to getting a mortgage on a property, uncertainty is not something that those who claim to be distrustful of scientists are actually unfamiliar with!
  • There are things to be learned from other fields, particularly the humanities and social sciences who are thinking about uncertainty in both psychological and philosophical terms. Moreover, economics is a field that that policymakers are often more comfortable with than science, yet it is also rife with uncertainty. Although it can be argued that the studious ignoring of economic uncertainties led to the financial crisis, there are lessons to be learned from that as well.
  • There is a huge need for research that straddles disciplinary boundaries. Several speakers pointed out the necessity for social science perspectives on global change issues, alongside the scientific. There is also a need for research that is ‘fit for purpose’ when it comes to policy implementation. However, the speakers pointed out, this research isn’t necessarily considered ‘groundbreaking’; it does not lead to Nature papers —and thus is not the sort of research most ambitious academics are interested in pursuing.


 The audience at the LWEC Assembly took these messages to heart. We in the Science Team at the Library will be thinking about how some of these ideas can be reflected in what we do. And hopefully we aren’t doing too badly. Our Envia pilot project is already improving the way in which flooding researchers and practitioners can find information that is relevant to their work. DataCite, for which we are the UK lead, enables and encourages the citation and sharing of research data. On the biomedical front, we recognise that even when a paper is openly available, that does not mean it is accessible (from the perspective of intelligibility). Our recently launched Access to Understanding science writing competition encourages early career researchers to summarise academic articles in an engaging and accessible manner. And our upcoming Beautiful Science exhibition will be looking at the visualisation of scientific data, encouraging audiences to consider how science is communicated visually. So while we can’t crack the uncertainty in climate models, we would like to think that we are helping researchers and practitioners get the evidence they need for their work and communicate more effectively to policymakers in an uncertain world.


If you are interested in looking into this in a bit more detail, here are a few useful resources for you!

A video of the LWEC Assembly will be posted on the ESKTN TV Youtube Channel

Sense about Science GuideMaking Sense of Uncertainty: Why Uncertainty is a part of science.

David Spiegelhalter’s Understanding Uncertainty website. He also wrote this excellent piece in Nature about interpreting scientific claims

Royal Society meeting proceedings on Handling Uncertainty in Science

Making Science Count in Government – a much debated (also see comments section) piece by Ian Boyd, published in E-Life


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