Some important pointers for improving communication between scientists and politicians (Nature 480, 153; 2011) emerged from a meeting last year between the two groups, organized by the International Risk Governance Council.
Support for fundamental research is essential, but scientists shouldn’t be tempted to overstate their claims. Specifically, requests for funding for basic research into a particular question shouldn’t imply that the research will definitely provide the answer. When basic questions lead to technological advances, these typically emerge in another, unexpected area — take quantum mechanics and the transistor, for example, or the study of gas conductivity that led to the discovery of X-rays.
The best bets for answering immediate, focused questions are likely to be the development of existing technologies and the novel juxtaposition of established ideas from different areas. Governments should therefore put more faith in interdisciplinary scientists who have the vision and ability to bring apparently disparate fields together, rather than turning to subject specialists, who often have their own agendas.
For their part, scientists must recognize and respect the need of politicians to win votes. Without power, politicians can’t carry through a long-term, scientifically based policy. Scientists who promote these policies will fare better if they can identify and suggest short-term, intermediate benefits.