“Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her. I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion” – Proverbs 8: 10-12.
The week before last, just after this newspaper column deadline, I set out from London for the annual Conference on Statistics, Science and Public Policy at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, England, coordinated by Professor Agnes Herzberg of Queen’s University, Canada. This conference was the eleventh in the series. The theme was Evidence, Economics and Health. It was a stimulating, informative and networking experience in an idyllic setting. It was a perfect and intellectually recharging interlude for a busy routine.
Over half of the 50 plus listed participants were from Canada, followed by 11 from the UK, 7 from the US, 4 from Europe and one each from Ghana, New Zealand and Barbados. The participants were primarily leading university based professors from diverse scientific fields. There were also representatives from public scientific corporations and a complementary input from the science media, political, legal and business consulting fraternity.
On the first night of the conference pianist Angela Hewitt captivated and charmed the participants with her musicianship, versatility and virtuosity. She has been described by Stereophile magazine as ‘The pianist who will define Bach performance on piano for years to come”.
Dr. Herzberg set the stage at the opening session by reminding us what we were about and reinforcing the importance of our deliberations in ventilating this year’s theme “Evidence, Economics and Health”. This was followed by seven technical sessions. The other sessions dealt with Evidence and Policy; World Economics; Public Health; Terrorism: Evidence or Prejudice?; Science Advice to Governments: Could it be Better?; Measuring Outcomes; and Epidemics, Pandemics and Politics.
On the second night we were treated to an after dinner presentation by a member of parliament, back bencher Dr. Ian Gibson, himself a scientist and former university lecturer and researcher. His presentation was an interesting exposÃ© on his decision making process as he expediently switches from his ‘scientific’ to his ‘political’ hat and vice versa.
After the banquet, on the final night, we were humorously addressed by Peter Kavanagh, a senior radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The meeting concluded on Saturday with reflections on the conference. One major topic was the need to communicate the wisdom arising from these outstanding deliberations with appropriate publics.
In 2004, Dr. Herzberg convened a team to prepare a summary of recommendations for Government and the Scientific Community to review the annual conference series, which began in 1996. In his foreword, Peter Milliken, speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, himself a regular conference participant, made the following observation “These invaluable conferences bring together outstanding individuals from a variety of professional fields to address topics of interest, and their importance, both to speakers and to participants, cannot be underestimated. In addition to the valuable insights that inevitably occur when talented people get together to discuss interesting ideas, the professional and personal relationships that are forged during these meetings ensure that the aims of the conference, namely, the furthering of knowledge, trust and cooperation in the spheres of government and science, are met and surpassed”.
An extract from the Executive summary of the recommendations is as follows: “Science, including Statistics, is fundamental to the society in which we live. It forms the bedrock of our economy and it is an essential part of our intellectual heritage. Without science we would be materially and culturally poorer.
Effective public policy depends on good science and good scientists, but in practice scientists, including statisticians, play only a limited role in the formulation of public policy.
A casual and ad hoc approach is an inefficient and incomplete way to deal with the range of scientific issues of national and international interest. Each nation should implement a mechanism to deal specifically with scientific issues at the highest level. Particulars will differ according to each nation’s interests, resources and political organization, but each such plan will need to address the issues raised here”.
I had the honour to be Deputy Chairman of the Barbados National Council for Science and Technology (NCST) from its inception in 1977 to 1984, under the Chairmanship of the late Sir Sydney Martin former Principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies. The NCST was set up under the aegis of the Ministry of Finance and Planning mainly to coordinate local activities in Science and Technology(S&T).
The main functions, which it was asked to perform at the time, were to: (1) collect, collate and review information concerning S&T; (2) coordinate scientific research and development in S&T; and (3) foster scientific research relating to – the development and utilization of local resources; the improvement of existing technical processes; the development of new processes and methods for application to the expansion or the creation of industries and to the utilization of waste products.
Maybe the Barbados NCST and indeed other NCSTs, can benefit from studying the published proceedings of the Statistics, Science and Public Policy conferences and seek to find a way to extend its role as an adviser to Government on Science, including Statistics.