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A cabinet of curiosities for science policy

How does the government know whether science policy has the desired effect? According to Professor Barend van der Meulen, a variety of evidence about the effectiveness of science policy and proper gathering of this evidence are more important than a strict scientific method. Inaugural lecture 27 March.

Science policy is still a relatively young field. It was not until the 1960s that the Dutch government started to question how government funding was being used in the domain of science and that attention started to be paid to science policy.  This was the impetus for the search for good means of measuring and justifying that policy.  'What we're actually looking for is evidence for science policy on which we can base our decisions about what constitutes good and effective policy,' says Barend van der Meulen, Professor by Special Appointment of the chair in Evidence for Science Policy. 

Measuring changes the work

As an example, Van der Meulen mentions the search for evidence for the quality of research. 'The government wanted - and still wants - to know how good Dutch publicly-funded research is. Committees and science researchers have gradually developed a practice in which numbers of publications, citations, impact factors and the H-index are used 'to measure quality.' But applying bibliometrics as an instrument to measure the quality of research also has repercussions for research. 'Scientists structure their work so that it results in publications and citations. This evidence not only improves policy; it also changes research practices.'

Lost knowledge

Are there good types of evidence for science policy?  'With a strict evidence-based approach to science policy, a lot of knowledge is thrown overboard. It is no longer the experience and perceptions of scientific professionals about what makes good science, nor the considerations of politicians, but the results of a detached science researcher that are key in determining policy.'  That's undesirable, particularly in the case of such themes as integrity and funding of research, where the professional experience of researchers is at least as important as the government's science goals.

Cabinet of curiosities

Van der Meulen draws a parallel with the cabinets of curiosities that were very popular in the 17th century. These collections of unusual objects, such as skilfully crafted tools, religious artefacts, special stones, plants and animals from all parts of the world, were regarded as representing a summary of world knowledge. 'The owner of a cabinet of curiosities was seen as a man of science.'

Diversity of knowledge

Very few of these cabinets have remained intact. 'The diversity of knowledge that was originally held in one cabinet has been divided up and included in different art collections, natural history museums, antiquaria and universities. Dividing the contents in this way means that a lot of knowledge has been lost: the experience of seeing the complete cabinet, people's perceptions and the understanding of how all these objects were amassed.' These are the very aspects that are also lost as a result of the current attitude to evidence for science policy.

Complete picture

The information and knowledge amassed about the effectiveness of science policy should generate the same kind of complete picture of science as the cabinets of curiosities did in previous centuries, in Van der Meulen's opinion. 'The evidence for science policy has to provide the government with sufficient information for democratic decision-making, but at the same time it has to give scientists enough professional scope to do their job properly.'  

Barend van der Meulen is Professor by Special Appointment of the chair in Evidence for Science Policy at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS). This chair was established by the Rathenau Institute, where Van der Meulen is also Head of Research. The research on the dynamics of and instruments for science policy is a collaboration between CWTS and the Rathenau Institute.

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