The policy making process – how a plant would do it.
A recent trip to Westminster was intended to engage, enlighten and enthuse early career scientists in the policy making process. How is evidence used to instruct new policies? How is evidence conveyed to elected policy makers? Where does it all happen? At the end of this long day, as we chugged back to Sheffield along a wind-swept M1, the answers to these questions seemed to figuratively crystallise as an extended metaphor that will be familiar to most scientists.
Let me explain.
Imagine the sun as a brightly glowing ball of knowledge, constantly swirling, gurgling and erupting within itself. Now imagine this sun represents independent scientists whom diligently generate evidence, which is disseminated in the form of light. Some of this light reaches Earth, where it can be put to use. In nature, the leaves of an oak tree use this light in photosynthesis, whereas in society evidence-based knowledge is utilised to decide on future policy decisions.
Embedded within society are policy-frameworks built up by successive parliaments over many years, which help to shape and support society. Cellular structures and chemical components holding a leaf together are analogous to the policy frame-works that hold society together – without them, both would disassemble into anarchy.
Situated within Houses of Parliament are elected ministers whom are the policy-making engines of government. They gather in regular fashion and sit together as a select committee to listen to evidence given by witnesses or experts in a field of knowledge (Fig. 1) – perhaps the endless spectrum of wavelengths of light are the different knowledge bases; biology, engineering, socio-economics, psychology, computer engineering – all different areas of expertise that may be heard by select committees. Analogous to select committees, are the small clusters of proteins embedded within the structural framework of plant cells. Just as MPs sitting in select committees use evidence to instruct new policies, proteins sitting within cell membranes use light from the sun to generate energy (Fig. 1).
How is the policy used within society? Or to ask this another way, how is energy used by an oak tree?
Within plants, the energy generated through photosynthesis can be used to construct new cell structures and leaves, to support old structures or can even be called upon to generate protective compounds against attack from parasites. In society, new policy builds structure, delimitates boundaries and determines how different components of society should function and interact with each other. Under emergency situations, policy can also be generated quickly to respond to imminent threats – indeed, David Cameron spoke in the House of Commons as we were touring the buildings to talk about action in the wake of the Paris attacks.
The degree to which this metaphor can be extended is debatable but it seems many parallels can be drawn between a self-sustaining photosynthetic system, which is fundamental to a plant, and the evidence-based policy process that is embedded within government and that supports society. Realising the vital role of evidence in policy and policy in society, is crucial for scientists and policy-makers alike and will help to build a cohesive bridge between the sometimes distinct factions.