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The Role of Science in Public Policy

Author: Archit Gupta

Suppose there was a time machine and you were to move 10000 of years back in time. Man still is a wanderer hunter. He eats whatever he finds. Settled life is still not a part of his ways of living. One day one of these 'Darwinian adaptable' minds sees a seed germinating and curiosity leads him to find the mystery of agriculture. Some of these Darwinian men also saw sense in organising themselves into herds and hunting like lions. But their skills and weapons were still primordial. They sit together and analyse and ideas on optimal utilisation of resources emerge. Soon a leader is chosen whose job is to ensure coordination, resource allocation and monitoring. Strong will go and hunt and the weak would develop some or the other skill or perish. Each step he took was a learning process. He learned equally from nature as well his own mistakes and successes. Science had taken firm roots into governance and was here to stay.

Science is the systematic collection and analysis of data. This data can be anything from the simple looking movement of ants to the complex rockets and satellites launched into outer space. It is this science backed by reason and analysis that has helped man in his quest to understand, rationalize and simplify things. As man was able to have more control over his life and shield himself more from the vagaries of the nature, he could focus more on observing and learning. He learnt various things. Various sciences developed over time. Astronomy, Medicinal science, Engineering, Social Sciences, the art of developing a script and hence writing, managing businesses, running government with the help of various institutions like bureaucracy, military and elections etc. Today all governments formulate policies on all of these spheres and in turn use them to make policies effective.

Science and public policy are intertwined. Although both facilitate the growth of the other, it is the former which is a keystone for the latter, Without science public policy would be as if a man who has never been out of the safe walls of his house were to be left alone in the Thar desert and asked to come back home safely!! It may look like an exaggeration but this is not be very far from reality. To put it in perspective, take the case of a pride of lion chasing a herd of cattle. Even if in thousands, a small number of lionesses can hunt a few cattle out of these thousands. And why is it so? The lionesses know how to organize themselves but the cattle don't. The same is true with public science. The more scientifically designed the policy is, the better it is to withstand the challenges that rise before it.

Creating a policy is no easy task. Especially for a nation that has such a vast size as to be called a sub-continent. A nation whose history has been a history of diversity. A nation which has a birthplace of a number of religions and assimilated all those religions that had anything meaningful to offer. A nation that believes that religion and nation can not be separated but have to work together for the benefit of all. A nation that is also a land of ironies - messages of non violence and communalism have flourished side by side, higher education for girls and yet a higher crime against them too, a nation that lives in its villages and yet has neglected them, a nation that believes in universal brotherhood and still is bathed in divisions based on caste, class and religion. This is our nation - India; and for all its diversities to be protected and contradictions to be solved, rational and scientific public policies are a must.

Public policy is a way to address the various problems that are present in the society, in a rational, scientific and public centered way, keeping in view the end results of the actions taken. Clearly, the aim is to solve or simplify a problem. This can be done in two ways. Taking an action and then leaving the rest to the almighty. In the current situation of vast nation states with responsible governance this is certainly not acceptable. The other way is to understand and articulate the problem, analyze and research the various scenarios that could emerge, with active involvement of the stakeholders at all levels and then implementing, monitoring and correcting it, whenever need be. This is the scientific way. Clearly of the two the second is not only more desirable but experience and even basic understanding tells us is the better option.

For example take the case of the recent Uttarakhand disaster that took place due to flash floods. While clearly the nature was not just to  the people who lost their lives or those who lost their relatives, the government was not able to fulfill its role too. The lack of a coherent and scientific public policy on ecological sustainability of the region led to massive deforestation, building of dams, increased tourism etc. On top of these there was a lack of quick and adequate response from the NDRF, mostly because the IT and coordination policies are not adequately designed. This was the prime reason why many who could have been saved lost their near and dear ones.

On the other hand, the effect of science backed public policy was clearly visible when Phailin hit the Eastern coast of India. The scale of the cyclone was enormous. But the state administration had adequate scientific proof about the time and place where the cyclone was about to hit. This was resonated by an effective disaster management team, a sound public awareness campaign, effective transportation. The result being it called as one of the most successful disaster management in the history of India.

To understand the complexity of the current world and the need for an effective scientific policy, the much cliched synonym of science - IT, provides a fertile ground. It is true that we live in the age, the contours of which are is defined by information technology. IT has made our life so dependent on it that it is hard to imagine that one can live a day without it. Ask a netizen and he would tell how hard life is without 'Googling' . Ask a youngster and he would talk about the irresistible urge to log in on facebook just to update his status!

Even for public policy making governments are increasing using the platforms provided by IT and the multiple benefits (real time access, transparency, audit trail etc) it provides. IT has today become a synonym of good governance. The Indian government has for long been worried of the widespread corruption that has grown like a cancer in the society. Red tapism and nepotism has become the ulcer of governance. The government on its part has come up with an IT backed project Direct Benefit Transfer, to fight this menace and at the same time for effective and accountable transfer of funds to the grass root level. Today the emphasis for good governance is through e-governance. Whether it is the policy to improve agricultural productivity (agricultural channels, SMS service for information etc) or industrial accounting (MCA21) or e schools programs IT forms their backbone.

But this is not just true for IT, science of all colours are important. Take for example agriculture. Suppose you were to again take that time machine to the 1950s, sit at a chaupal and listen to the conversations of the people. The biggest worry would have invariably been that of food security. A person talking about a bad monsoon would probably be looked at with anger. But today we have managed to come a long way from being dependent on foreign nations for our food security to exporting it to the needy nations. All the hue and cry of an El Nino has hardly any effect on the urban youth.

But how has the situation changed so dramatically? It was only possible because our government analysed the ways to increase the production of food grains from a scientific mindset and then designed a public policy that was visionary. The food security of the nation was ensured through Green Revolution. The effective utilisation of PDS and mass storage of food by FDI has led to adequate supply of grains even in worst of calamities preventing any chance of famines.

But this food security led to other problems, that of regional inequality and environmental sustainability of the project. This shows how important it is to look at public policies from all angles including those that may initially look irrelevant. Various sciences have to come together in a coherent manner to ensure that public policies are sound and can stand the test of time.

This example is especially significant. This shows how the diversity of our nation can make it complex to set up a policy. A policy that may work for any other nation in the world, may not in our nation. Our diversity calls for special analysis. Our policies need to be centred around these studies. A policy that may be well spirited may end up in creating several social problems. A policy may well lay the foundations of a strong economic growth but what use it may be if environmental impact is not taken into account. Thus for effective policy making, science has to be the lighthouse of the ever sailing ship of governance.

Would it be possible to ensure the sustainability of Western Ghats without the use of satellites to map the land use patterns? Would it be possible to manage imports and exports effectively without real time data of food crops produced? Would it be possible to deliver good farm gate prices to the farmers if technology does not provide them access to market prices? Would it be possible to create a budget for the nation without economics? The list would probably complete a book and yet there is not a single aspect of governance that can be facilitated without the use of some science or the other. In fact today a single science may not even suffice. As is clear from the example of the Green Revolution.

Science is a facilitator. It is a source that enables inventions that simplify our life. Public policy is one such sphere that has come into existence due to science. This is the reason it is not possible to understand the art of public policy making without understanding the various sciences that facilitate it. Whether it be the Ashokan empire of the medieval period or the British Empire of the modern times, the high correlation between science and public policy making took these empires to the heights that made others jealous. But the most important example of the contemporary world where science has most effectively met public policy is that of USA. No other nation has achieved it to the extent that US has. All of it began with the Declaration of independence that made it a federal nation with a democratic governance with a set of rights granted in the constitution. This ensemble of political science and governance was magnificent and what results it has achieved!!

Our own experience suggests that for effective governance various sciences need to collaborate to provide effective and efficient public policies that fulfil the needs of the society and is inclusive too. The government must also look at science as an important element of policy making.