If there are only a couple of things you’ll remember from my blog series, I want one of them to be that just because you studied science, it doesn’t mean you have to work in a lab. Second, it’s okay to change your mind about what you want to study/work in as time goes (unless you want to go into medicine that needs a bit more planning and commitment). Very few decisions made at the age of 18 are wise or well-informed (I can say that because I’ve been there). We pick a course because it is vaguely in the direction of our interest, or what we think our interest is. I thought I’d be a biomedical scientist and I ‘decided’ that without having even been in a lab! Having said that, some of my friends from uni were excited by research and are now pursuing that. All, I’m saying is that it is good to be open minded because only then you will spot the opportunities that you didn’t even know existed. I wrote a blog post on this in June 2015 for the Aspiring Professionals Hub and every bit is still relevant in case you want a longer pep talk.
Talking about making informed decisions… Before we go into specific science policy topics (equality&diversity, genome editing and animal use in research are on my list for upcoming months) I wanted to touch on the underlying concept that connects them all – evidence-based policy. And that will hopefully be the third thing you will remember.
The principle is that all policies should be made based on accurate scientific evidence. It is that simple. In principle. In reality it’s a lot more complex (it always is in policy, you’ll soon find out). You should watch a TED talk by Dr Ben Goldacre as he gives real life examples of these tricky situations (& because he’s a great public speaker!). For example, he talks about a study which says that people who eat olive oil (together with vegetables and fruit) have fewer wrinkles than those who don’t. Most trials are done in a way where you take a group of people, split them in two groups, give one group the substance you want to test (eg.medicine or olive oil!) and the other group gets placebo (a sugar pill that does nothing). At then end you see if there are any differences between the two groups. But nobody went back in time and separated the olive oil consumers – they just observed a population. What is interesting here is that while surely olive oil is good for you, you have to bare in mind that people who eat olive oil tend to be wealthier as it isn’t cheap, they’re probably less likely to do manual labour or work outdoors, they take batter care of themselves. All these factors contribute to fewer wrinkles. There are heaps of news headlines that pick up on stories like this. Many things are correlated (let’s say olive oil consumers tend to have better skin) but not all of them are caused by one another (just because you splash olive oil on your salad, it doesn’t mean you will be wrinkle-free; I’m getting to the point in my life where I wish it was that easy!). Then he goes on talking about a study that claimed that fish oil pills made school children smarter – you got to hear that! (Spoiler alert: no, they don’t. Duh).
Evidence matters. Watch this video to hear why it matters to other people too.
Now. If it was that straightforward, wouldn’t all policies be always evidence-based? Are there other factors that are taken into account when making these decisions? Should traditions and culture matter? If GM food is fine, why do some people call it ‘Frankenstein food’? Should the public perception be taken into consideration when deciding whether GM crops should be grown or not? In the summer of 2015 Scotland announced that they would ban cultivation of GM crops. Many other European countries did too. Here are three articles for you to read and think about what matters in policy making process: Scottish Gov website, Independent and BBC. That’s a lot of questions, but it’s what usually attracts people to study science – while the complexity can be sometimes a bit daunting, it is also thrilling.
See you next month! In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line @GabrieleButk.
In case you missed it, read the introductory blog post from last month – ‘Science policy: the whys and hows of science and research’.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here represent my own and not necessarily those of my employer.