Scientists and policymakers as partners | Inquirer Opinion

Scientists and policymakers as partners

Recently, the white sand component of Manila Bay’s rehabilitation project sparked furious debates. Despite many experts warning that the crushed dolomite would be washed away during a storm and the health risks these fine particles posed to human health, the project nonetheless pushed through and found support among many people.

Many of us demand policies to be evidence-based—that they follow the findings of carefully and meticulously conducted studies. Understandably so, as the cost and impact of policies require thorough understanding of their impacts to society and the planet. However, government policies in a democracy are deliberated on, consulted with, and approved by individuals representing many sectors of society. Rather than being evidence-based, policies are informed by many other factors in the policy process. But we should consider that people in communities and our policymakers are actually also theorizing on and processing evidence. They may not necessarily follow what academia and research institutions consider as sound science, but they have their own way capturing reality and how to approach issues of public concern.


Objectivity versus subjectivity is another point of juncture. The hard sciences strongly defend objectivity: One is a one and cannot be 1.1 in Mathematics, for example. These rules work perfectly in understanding the physical aspects of the world which follow the laws of nature, but may not always be true when applied to human agents who are free. Objective approaches to the social sciences have been mired in debates even today. Nonetheless, let us face the fact that in a democracy which demands the representation of broad sectors of society, there will always be differences in understanding and addressing issues.

Policies are also shaped by institutional memory and history. Structures on how policies will be passed are shaped by cultures and sub-cultures within the government, from the executive to the legislative and back. Ways of doing things are established from one administration to the next. There are also relationship dynamics between policymakers in office. As much as we have certain working relationships with our colleagues at work or with our family members, so, too, those in our government, given the multitude of people who are working together to create, pass, implement, and evaluate policies. That is why we cannot reduce human beings to objective actors in the policy process. To do so is to dehumanize human beings altogether, as we are naturally subjective.


Not that I agree with putting crushed dolomite in Manila Bay, but this gives us the chance to reflect on how we as academics and scientists engage with policymakers. There is a demand for policymakers to be attuned to scientific evidence. But equally, we as academics and scientists should go one notch higher in recognizing how to navigate the policy process while incorporating the valid opinions and subjectivities of our policy-

makers and the general population. We cannot just gather evidence, create technology, and leave the community and our leaders with generic x and y solutions for them to adopt. Deep-diving into the nuances and real concerns on the implications of our discoveries and knowledge products do not make our science bad, but make our science better.

Encouraging movements within science itself are beginning to recognize this. Transdisciplinary approaches, including human ecology, does not just look at human-

environment relations, but also focus on co-creating knowledge and solutions among different sectors of society. We must move from contestation to partnership in developing evidence-informed policies, so that public money is spent on projects that truly make a difference in people’s lives.


Ron Jay P. Dangcalan is a political economist with interest in disaster risk management and environmental governance. He is an assistant professor at the Department of Social Development Services, College of Human Ecology, and a Specialist at the UPLB Water Center.

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