Listening to Cassandra: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Policy

By Dr Don Williams

“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts…saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

– Michael Gove, British Secretary of State for Justice, June 2016

Science has transformed humanity’s understanding of the universe. Science-based revolutions in industry, communications, medicine, and transportation have brought about astonishing improvements in life expectancy and affluence. However, these achievements are inevitably accompanied by dark shadows, typified by anthropogenic climate change and the development of weapons capable of obliterating civilization.

The transformative power of science suggests it should play a fundamental role in developing public policy. This would ensure science informs debates about issues such as sustainable energy production, ecosystem protection, and genetic modification of food.

However, both the literature and everyday experience indicate that using scientific knowledge to inform policy debates is not straightforward. This article examines how to better integrate science and policy development.

Science and Policy: Two Worlds?

Public policy can be defined as ‘a set of decisions by governments and other political actors to influence, change, or frame a problem or issue that has been recognized as in the political realm…’.1 Given the significant technical content of many important issues, it seems self-evident that science should be a bedrock component of policy debates.

However, the literature identifies inherent barriers to seamlessly linking science and policy. A consistent theme is that science and policy are fundamentally different activities. Scientists seek to remove ‘values’ (such as value-judgements, personal beliefs, and biases) as they search for empirically based, generalisable findings. In contrast, policy development must balance competing values, and consider the broader socio-political context.2,3,4 For the policymaker, ‘evidence’ also includes values, ideologies, moral judgements, and anecdotes. Values-related assessments are inherent to policy development, as are judgements about the politically feasibility of different courses of action.4

While this ‘Two Worlds’ model highlights fundamental intellectual differences between science and policy, there are also practical barriers that inhibit effective communication between the two fields:

Attitude to Uncertainty – Science sees uncertainty as an inherent part of advancing knowledge. In contrast, policymakers are uncomfortable with uncertainty, as it can be fatal for policy proposals.

The Policy Cycle: Myth Versus Reality – Real policymaking is a far more diffuse, erratic process than is suggested by the traditional policy cycle model. Attempts to inform policy based on this model are bound to produce sub-optimal results.

Information Saturation – Scientific advice can be crowded out by the avalanche of information, of varied credibility, that is available in the twenty-first century. Thus, scientific knowledge may have to compete with other types of ‘information’ (social media content, anecdotes, claims from lobbyists, etc.) to establish its pre-eminence.

Incompatible Timeframes – Policymakers operate to tight timelines, often with weekly and daily deadlines. These timeframes can generate spontaneous requests for advice, which do not align well with the more measured process used to create scientific knowledge. This is compounded by the rapid churn of elected officials.4

The varied capacity of science to influence policy is illustrated by the following two cases. They show that the success of science-based policy development is unpredictable.

Two Contrasting Cases

Images used in the Anti-Recycled Water Campaign, Toowoomba

Case 1 – Science Overshadowed: Toowoomba Recycled Water Project

Toowoomba (QLD) suffered water shortages during the early-century Millennium Drought. The city’s water demand was estimated to exceed the safe yield from its dams by 1998, with demand thereafter progressively exceeding reliable supply.5

In response, the City of Toowoomba (responsible for water supply) released a Water Futures Initiative in 2005. The Initiative’s most important element was ‘indirect reuse’ of treated wastewater for water supply. This envisaged sending treated wastewater to a multi-stage water processing plant, transferring the water produced by the plant to a dam, and further treatment of the water before it was used to supply Toowoomba.6

This scheme was based on sound science:

  • Water would pass through seven well-proven pollutant removal steps before reuse.6
  • A multi-year testing program would be overseen by the CSIRO prior to recycled water use commencing.5
  • Australian Drinking Water Guidelines provided scientific benchmarks for safe drinking water quality.6
  • The National Water Commission, the then peak technical water policy adviser to Australian governments, assessed and approved the scheme.5,7

At the policy level, solid political support appeared to have been locked in. The Initiative was launched with the support of all Toowoomba councillors, local Queensland MPs and the Queensland Premier, and the local Federal MP.7 However, this support fractured when concerted local opposition appeared. A number of politicians withdrew their support, so the project was ‘no longer about water and was all about politics and vested interests’, and was consequently abandoned. 5,7 A technically sound proposal was not adopted as public policy following a noisy political debate.

The Initiative’s failure reflects several of the issues previously highlighted:

  • The differing worldviews of science and policy are shown by the willingness of some politicians to cease supporting the Initiative when community opposition appeared, suggesting a failure to adhere to the intellectually rigorous, evidence-based approach championed by science.
  • The policy process was unpredictable compared with the ‘policy cycle’ model.
  • The Initiative’s opponents ‘said what they liked and maligned anyone who had an opposing view’, leading to scientific information having to compete with unreliable sources of information.5

This case confirms that efforts to translate science into public policy may be confronted by emotive language and arguments, and turbulent policy processes. Fortunately, more encouraging examples can be identified.

Images used in the Anti-Recycled Water Campaign, Toowoomba

Case 2 – Success for Science: Fluoridating Melbourne’s Water Supply

Adjusting fluoride concentrations in drinking water to suitable levels (0.6 to 1.1 mg/L) reduces tooth decay and the associated health impacts. There are no reliable links between fluoridation and any health problems in Australia.8

In Australia, fluoridation started at Beaconsfield (TAS) in 1953, with Bacchus Marsh being the first Victorian town to receive fluoridated water (1962). However, Melbourne’s water was not fluoridated until 1977. The debate preceding the introduction of fluoridation in Melbourne included three distinct stages:

1953-1961: Although the Public Health Commission supported fluoridation, the Victorian government refused to adopt a formal policy, in the face of opposition from sections of the community and media. The issues of ‘mass medication’ and the rights of individuals to control their own bodies were fiercely debated.

1962-1972: The government continued its failure to adopt a fluoridation policy, reflecting internal disagreements and continued opposition by anti-fluoridation groups. Sporadic efforts by local governments to introduce fluoridation were frustrated by the absence of a state-level policy framework.

1973 – 1977: With the advent of a new Ministry, the government moved decisively to support fluoridation. Legislation was passed that empowered the Public Health Commission to direct water utilities to implement fluoridation. The Commission issued this direction for Melbourne’s water supply, which was fluoridated in 1977.9

The protracted debate that preceded fluoridation of Melbourne’s water supply shows that:

  • Policy debates go beyond rational assessment of scientific information and include contested value judgements.
  • Opponents of fluoridation resorted to emotive language and arguments.
  • Traditional policy development models do not reflect the unpredictable nature of highly politicised policy discussions.9
  • These points are consistent with the barriers to translating science into policy identified in section (2) and by the Toowoomba case. However, Melbourne’s eventual adoption of fluoridation demonstrates that these barriers are not always insurmountable: persistent, brave advocacy may ultimately achieve policy reforms.

Having examined barriers to linking science and policy, we next examine ways to mitigate them.

Reconciling the Two Worlds

The published literature on how scientists can improve their capacity to influence policy outcomes is extensive. A large-scale review in 2019 by Oliver and Cairney of advice to academics about how to influence policy identified hundreds of relevant articles, some dating back to the 1950s.10 The review included a thematic analysis to identify ‘key tips’ for scientists to influence policy, which produced these recommendations:

  • Do high-quality research.
  • Communicate well: make your research relevant and readable.
  • Understand policy processes, policymaking context, and key actors.
  • Be ‘accessible’ to policymakers, engage routinely, flexibly, and humbly.
    Decide if you want to be an ‘issue advocate’ or ‘honest broker’.
  • Build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers.
  • Be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is.
  • Reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working?

Fortunately, these recommendations mirror sound professional practices that most scientists seeking to influence policymaking will be aware of, such as effective communication, building sound relationships with policymakers, understanding the policy context, and reflecting on how to improve policy inputs.

An encouraging sign that governments are now recognising the need for science to inform policy is the adoption of the Commonwealth Water Act (2007), following intense negotiations between the Australian government and the governments of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory. The Water Act includes a central role for science. It addresses the overallocation of water to irrigated farming in the Murray Darling Basin at the expense of other purposes, including providing environmental flows to support riverine ecosystems. The Act requires that environmental needs are prioritised ahead of other water uses, and the best available science is used to determine environmental water allocations.11

In accordance with the Act, hydrological modelling was used to set quantitative environmental water recovery targets for the Basin.11 Using scientific knowledge to set specific targets, as opposed to relying on general statements of policy intent, has similarly been recommended to drive the adoption of sustainable urban water management practices, such as conservation and recycling.12

While the adequacy of the Basin environmental recovery targets has been the subject of considerable controversy, the Water Act’s explicit acknowledgement of the importance of science in environmental management is a very welcome development.


The case for science to inform policymaking is overwhelming, but there are inherent differences between the two endeavours. Fortunately, most scientists are familiar with the communications, relationship-building and self-reflection practices recommended to improve the capacity of science to inform policy development. Scientists seeking to influence public policy should recognise and implement these procedures. Scientists should also identify specific targets that can be incorporated in policies, such as the quantitative greenhouse gas reduction targets adopted by the Victorian and Australian governments.13,14

Sustained advocacy may also result in scientific advice being adopted after a lengthy interval, if political re-alignments provide a more receptive environment for policy change.

The ability to build sound relations with policymakers, communicate well and maintain advocacy for specific policy outcomes over prolonged periods is well suited to institutions, as well as individual scientists. A relevant example was the Victorian government’s creation of the office of Lead Scientist in 2013, to build links between industry, academia, and government.15 The Royal Society of Victoria’s focus on linking science and policy outcomes is, of course, also very positive. The Society is well placed to further strengthen relationships with policymakers in Victoria and communicate scientific knowledge to them.

Dr Don Williams worked for 30 years in the water quality management, wastewater regulation and water efficiency fields. Don then completed a PhD examining how planning laws influence the adoption of sustainable urban water practices. Don has a long-standing interest in how scientific knowledge influences public policy.


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  2. Grant, W. J. and Lamberts, R. (2011). Scientists and politicians – the same but different. The Conversation, 17 November 2011.
  3. Frank, A. (2014). A Problem Like No Other: Science And Politics. NPR Cosmos And Culture, 10 June 2014.
  4. Sienkiewicz, M. and Mair, D. (2020). Chapter 1 – Against the Science–Policy Binary Separation: Science for Policy 1.0, in Science for Policy Handbook, Editors: Šucha, V. and Sienkiewicz, M. Elsevier. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-822596-7.00001-2.
  5. Thorley, D. (2006). Toowoomba recycled water poll. Reform, (89), 49-51.
  6. Water Futures Toowoomba
  7. Hurlimann, A. and Dolnicar, S. (2010). When public opposition defeats alternative water projects–The case of Toowoomba Australia. Water research, 44(1), 287-297. DOI:10.1016/j.watres.2009.09.020.
  8. NHMRC (2017). Public Statement 2017 Water Fluoridation and Public Health in Australia. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
  9. Head, B. W. (1978). The fluoridation controversy in Victoria: Public policy and group politics. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 37 (3), 257-273.
  10. Oliver, K., and Cairney, P. (2019). The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics. Palgrave Communications, 5(1), 1-11. DOI: 10.1057/s41599-019-0232-y.
  11. Skinner, D. and Langford, J. (2013). Legislating for sustainable basin management: the story of Australia’s Water Act. Water Policy 15, 871–894.
  12. Williams, D. (2020). The influence of statutory land use planning on water sensitive urban design practices. Australasian Journal of Water Resources, 24:1, 60-72. DOI:10.1080/13241583.2020.1746173.
  13. Victoria’s climate action targets
  14. Australia’s Nationally Determined Contribution Communication 2022
  15. Dr Leonie Walsh.