Media and Science: How to Bridge the Attention Divide?

Research is hard work and the returns are often small. It is therefore unsurprising that it can be tempting to embellish the results.This goes some way to explain why the public image of science, and especially social science, has recently been tarnished; the biggest recent blow being the uncovering of the extensive academic fraud committed by social psychologist Diederik Stapel (New York Times, 2011).

However, regular media coverage of science also contributes to an unfavourable view of social science. Sexy, ‘funny’ or ‘surprising’ topics are favoured by the media. Most social science studies do not fit any of these categories. Therefore they rarely generate media attention.

This is not Patients at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. necessarily a deplorable state of affairs. After all, why should Joe Bloggs be interested in the little steps of progress made by social scientists? (And yes, I do believe that social science is useful on the whole.)

Nevertheless, I am concerned about two related issues.

First, if the quality of social science research that attracts media attention is worse than what most researchers produce, it will ultimately damage the reputation of all social scientists and society’s willingness to fund social science research. To return to the example of Diederik Stapel, his findings that meat-eaters are more selfish than vegetarians certainly generated media attention; yet they turned out to be a hoax.

Second, from within the academic ivory tower, it is more and more frequently assumed that small is not beautiful. Journal editors and reviewers will reject or accept papers based on whether it is a ‘significant contribution to the literature’.

I am not alone in my observation that there is a tendency to dismiss societally-relevant work because of practical limitations that studying the messy outside world invariably brings with it (Cialdini, 2009). Instead, laboratory work that yields more ‘conclusive’ results is preferred.

However, it is vital for theories to be tested in the real world. In the case of my recent study on the impact of media coverage on cancer screening, there were competing theories. On the one hand, some argued that the messenger influences the persuasiveness of a message, which would result in preaching to the converted. On the other hand, others suggested that awareness is the key factor, thus predicting a relatively large increase in the previously unscreened population.

Our findings were supportive of the hypothesis that media coverage of cancer prevention and screening mainly has an awareness raising effect. Efforts to generate positive media attention should therefore be encouraged. This may not be a surprising conclusion, but it can certainly be a useful one.

by Siu Hing Lo, alumna of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. Image: UN Photo / Mark Garten

Cialdini, R.B. (2009), We have to break up, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4:1, 5-6.
New York Times (2011), Fraud case seen as red flag for psychology research, Accessed online 28 April 2012

Micro-modelling Public Policy: A Way out of the Crisis?

‘Nothing is certain but death and taxes’ according to an old British proverb. Everything in between is rather more complex, not least public policy. Before rolling out complicated, expensive policies on large populations, decision-makers not only need reliable data but also to run simulations.

Wherever they skip modelling, governments open themselves up to countless unforeseen factors. These include aspects that may have sparked or worsened the economic and demographic crises now facing Europe.

At a recent conference in Ireland, three of our PhD fellows presented papers of some significance to our troubled times. They focused on tax benefits for mobile workers, earnings dynamics, and retirement choice modelling — summarized in the soundcloud below.

Conference Backstory
As the European City of Science 2012, Dublin hosted the ‘European Meeting of the International Microsimulation Association‘, an international conference that brought together researchers from over 30 countries presenting 116 scientific papers.

Researchers from the German Labour Economics Institute (IZA), the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, UNICEF, and the European Dynamic Microsimulation Network, all came to discuss methodological aspects of their work. In other words, how they go about simulating and modelling complex policies.

What is Microsimulation modelling?
Microsimulation modelling is a form of computer based simulation model that simulates policy, economic, social and environmental change at a micro level (household, firm, and farm).The methodology allows one to evaluate and improve the design of public policy on a computer before rolling out often costly programmes on the general population.

To some extent the methodology can be regarded as a computer based laboratory for running policy experiments. They can thus help to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of public programmes.

A commonality across the different fields here is to use computer based techniques which aim to improve the design of public policy. To escape the economic crisis, we need to focus on methodologies that can provide better policy design. This is particularly true in Ireland, where the economic contraction over the past four years resulted from a number of policy failures.

Plenary Speakers, from left: Prof. Olivier Bargain (University of Marseilles), Prof. Richard Blundell (UCL), Dr Cathal O’Donoghue (Teagasc), Dr Andreas Peichl (IZA, Bonn), Prof Raj Chetty (Harvard University), Prof. Hilmar Schneider (IZA, Bonn)

We have much to learn from the experience of the modellers present at the conference to improve the design of our public policy. In policy making, often it is the results that are most important and influential. However in order to effectively analyse policy and other changes, it is important to develop capacity.

Technical push, focal pull
Scientific developments that focus on model design are important building blocks. To avoid re-inventing the wheel, something that unfortunately many policy modellers are frequently accused of, it is important to codify and to disseminate the knowledge that is generated through our modelling research.

The field of microsimulation has to some extent been held back by a lack of focus on this aspect in recent decades and the hope is that this conference can facilitate improved learning and development. Facilitating this there are plans for a number of journal special issues.

Participants from left: Dr Cathal O’Donoghue (Teagasc, Ireland), Dr. Jinjing Li (NATSEM, Australia), Dr. Raymond Wagener (Director of the Inspection Générale de la Sécurité Sociale (IGSS) , Luxembourg), Irina Burlacu (MGSoG, Netherlands), Dr. Philippe Liegeois (CEPS/Instead, Luxembourg)

PhD fellows and alumni from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance presented their work at the conference. Irina Burlacu (PhD candidate) discussed the effect of tax-benefit systems on the welfare of mobile earners, using static micro-simulation on synthetic data, based on the cases of Luxembourg and Belgium.

Denisa Sologon (School of Governance alumna) proposed a new approach in simulating earnings profiles, based on a sophisticated error componence structure, which draws upon the literature used to study earnings dynamics. Jinjing Li (School of Governance alumnus) gave a presentation on retirement choice modelling and simulated retirement choices, using panel data, examining the effects of reforms on retirement. Click the soundcloud below to hear more about their presentations.

by Irina Burlacu, PhD fellow, UNU-MERIT / Maastricht Graduate School of Governance

Sustainable Cities Need Citizen Action

Just how sustainable your city is begins at your own doorstep. As a citizen, you play your role directly through your own lifestyle, but you also need to hold you representatives to account.

It was clear Flickr Large Minorityduring the first quarter of the year that bicycles were not a priority for the city administration in Medellín, Colombia. There were no hints from city officials responsible for the 4-year city development plan, that the bike would even be considered as part of an integrated transport system for the metropolitan region.

However, in late May 2012, during the final debate for the development plan in the city council, an engaged group of citizens managed – against all odds – to ensure the final text included pro-bicycle policies.

Yet beyond the shameful stance towards pedestrians and cyclists from the city Departments of Transport and Public Works, what really troubled me was the general reticence of fellow citizens.

No city in the world should allow people to continuously criticize public decisions – unless these criticisms are accompanied by organized citizen-led proposals; a crucial phenomenon in kickstarting democracy. This apathy is a clear sign of what political scientist Federico Hoyos calls ‘appeased democracy’.

It’s easy to curse the poor sustainability of our cities, yet very difficult to contribute with evidence-based proposals to create better societies, and even harder to lead by example.

Have you gone to the trouble of visiting your local councillor’s office, to share your views on mobility or pollution problems? Have you read the development plan of your city or region, and banded together with friends to communicate en masse with the pertinent officials? Of course many will say ‘they are not going to listen’. But that’s the oldest and laziest excuse in the book.

With a strategy of citizen mobilization (in person and via social networks) we managed to revive bicycles in Medellín for this 4-year term. Just to clarify, we’re not talking about a full-scale cycling revolution Bogotá-style, but it does set a crucial precedent for citizen participation in public decision-making.

Moreover, in promoting better conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, it’s clear that we not only have a long road ahead, but that clearing this requires active civic participation.

Thanks to support from the teams of councillors Bernardo Alejandro Guerra, Yefferson Miranda and Miguel Quintero, a paragraph was included in the final version of the development plan which outlines specific strategies for the promotion of bicycles as a sustainble mode of urban transport.

These strategies include the construction of appropriate parking, the development of pro-biking campaigns, the extension of the EnCicla pilot programme (public bicycle sharing), and the building of more bike paths in conjunction with the Metropolitan Area and the Metro.

We also received an official statement from the Department of Public Works, commiting itself to the construction of missing sections in the city’s existing bicycle route (around 1.7 km).

Citizens: it’s up to you to keep an eye on these projects and to push – with concrete arguments – for better policies on sustainability, now!

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 4 June 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Large Minority

Playing God for Sustainability? Perspectives from Sussex

In May 2012, Ajay Thutupalli joined two events at the University of Sussex in Britain: a Summer School on ‘Pathways to Sustainability’, and a ‘D. Phil Day’ where fellows share their research with peers and the academic community. Below Ajay shares his thoughts on the events and ultimately asks ‘Who are we to play God with development and sustainability?’

With its ‘pathways approach’, the STEPS Centre is broadening perspectives in research and policy for sustainability.  It stresses the principle of ‘plurality’, aiming to correct the narrow top-down syndrome of policy makers by opening the discourse for alternate perspectives on pathways to sustainability. In particular, this ideology criticizes the assumption that a particular dominant pathway is the only way forward; for example GM research in agriculture.

What this highlights is UN Photo Fred Noy the importance of policy discourses for debating the various ‘narratives’ that emerge in the complex world about the pathways to sustainability. Alternate pathways under this theme need not be highways but can also be the ‘road-less-travelled’, which may emerge from remote settings but have enough merits to scale up.

On the agenda were case studies on the pathways approach, including innovation pathways for maize in Kenya, policy pathways for improved waste management in peri-urban Delhi. In the first case, we looked at the innovation pathways that fall under the 2D space of low-to-high yielding maize on the horizontal axis and low-to-high external inputs on the vertical axis. The relevant stakeholders then analyzed their merits and demerits.

In the case of waste management, we saw the alternate policy pathways, which consider the local technological options, increase the levels of privatization and decentralization. This contrasts with the dominant pathway, which tries to strengthen the formalization of the existing system.

Further, lines of enquiry that involve combinations of methods of enquiry that help us to appreciate the alternate pathways to sustainability were proposed. Questioning the ‘process of policy making’ if it excludes the alternate framings of problems and solutions by under-privileged actors is stressed.

These arguments are very important given the dilemmas policy makers are facing with ‘sustainability’ on the one hand and ‘economic growth’ on the other. Because the pathways approach seems to apply the principle of plurality to policy makers, researchers and consumers alike, the question arises ‘at what level of the agent hierarchy can this idea be upheld?’

Imagine a policy maker sitting at her desk choosing among the alternate pathways for decreasing the CO2 emissions in the short term. She is not allowed to choose n number of pathways simply because she is responsible for not leaving the world as it is. It is equally difficult for consumers. Not every consumer can allow for plurality in his choice of cars.

It is difficult to change individuals’ behaviour and lifestyles. So the bigger question is ‘how can this plurality be implemented at different levels’? Because not all research seems fitting for ‘appreciating alternate pathways’ and many scientists whether social or natural break their heads exploring the merits and demerits of a particular pathway.

There is however a body of social and natural science research, which explores two or more pathways towards sustainability. Some of this research certainly fits into the feasibility of pathways argument. Yet in this particular context, social science research is more privileged than its counterpart natural science.

If the whole idea is about including as many as possible alternate pathways (which are usually ignored) in the policy discussions then it is a powerful idea. But it’s a complex and difficult task to list diverse pathways to sustainability (both dominant and dormant), evaluating their merits and demerits in order to arrive at a consensus. How close is carrying out this task to playing God? And how close can playing God get us to leaving the world as it is?

This brings us back to the questions on role play in the policy making process.  We have the natural and social scientists, policy makers (often elected legislators or administrative beaurocrats), and the public. In the times of heated debates on policy making for sustainable futures, the question that arises is ‘who should play the role of a policy maker’?

Should the policy maker play her own role? Is she capable of understanding the rigour of evidence-based science or innovation policy? How can we remain confident that political interests do not influence this policy discourse? How important is the uncertainty (unknown unknowns) in this discourse? What about the abuse of scientific evidence? Is the policy maker capable of understanding these issues? If not who should take over?

Should the scientist take over? If yes, should it be a natural scientist or a social scientist? Or should the common man decide on the science policy for sustainability? Should we completely drop the role of a policy maker? The fundamental difference between playing these roles as I see it is in the philosophy of the roles itself. So what are the philosophies of each of these roles?

A Common man’s philosophy as I see it would be ‘Do your duty (choose a pathway) and leave the rest to nature’; that of an enlightened one or a Guru would be ‘try to realize the plurality (acknowledge diverse pathways) and if possible throw light on at least one thread (pathway) to Nirvana’ (which here we can liken to sustainability).

I do not entirely know the philosophy of being a God.  Is it the same as being a policy maker? We often see scientists playing the roles of a ‘Common man’ or a ‘Guru’. That is, they stick to a particular pathway which they believe will take them home. Others, while acknowledging that multiple pathways exist, strive for deeper insights into the success or failure of a particular pathway. So is it really possible for scientists to play policy maker (God)?

Coming to the role of a social scientist, should she be playing a ‘Common man’ or a ‘Guru’? Can she ever play ‘God’?  If yes, then how? And who should play God more often? Is it the policy maker, the scientist or the common man? In this context, Mark Henderson (see ‘The Geek Manifesto: Why Science matters’) says scientists or people with science backgrounds should be given the power of policy making, as they better appreciate the scientific vigour of evidence-based policy making.

While Dr. Richard Tol remarkably opines “There are always the questions of ‘What if?’, ‘So what?’, and ‘What to do?’ in policy making. ‘What if?’ seeks to answer what happens if we take this route. ‘So what?’ tries to provide the implications for the society. ‘What to do?’ has to do with which pathway should be chosen. Natural scientists like to answer the ‘What if?’; Social scientists, ‘So what?’; but then who should answer ‘What to do?’”. The policy maker? In other words, who should play which role? Who should play God?

The lectures on ‘Green Economy’ by Dr. Tim Jackson, ‘Eco-citizenship’ by Dr. Andy Dobson and ‘The greening of social democracy’ by Dr. Michael Jacobs raised similar questions. Is it rational to ask individuals to come together with sacrifice and plurality to build a green economy? Is this not asking them to raise their level of consciousness from being common men towards playing other roles? How can we do that?

Lacking any divine inspiration myself, let me posit this final piece of logic. If we can safely assume that God would be infinitely multi-faceted, then we can safely assume that policy makers should draw from a plurality of sources and stakeholders.

by Ajay Thutupalli, PhD fellow, UNU-MERIT. Image: UN Photo / Fred Noy.