Royal Society President Calls for Integration of Science and Policy

Kerry M. Flynn

Greater efforts should be taken to integrate scientific research into policies, Paul M. Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, said at the Science and Democracy Lecture Series on Wednesday evening.

Nurse, along with a panel of esteemed colleagues, emphasized “the primacy of the individual” in the face of a changing landscape for science and research.

“Scientific inquiry is concerned with acquiring knowledge of the natural world and ourselves. We’re interested in applying that knowledge,” Nurse said.

The panelists, MIT biology professor Eric S. Lander, physics professor Lisa J. Randall ’84, and history of science professor Charles Rosenberg, shared their diverse academic perspectives on the benefits and challenges of integrating science and policy.

Some of the obstacles derive from the permanent and irreversible nature of the reforms, Randall said.

Nurse cited current issues such as climate change and genetically modified crops to demonstrate the need to fund focused research.

Reflecting on the challenge of selecting reliable researchers from a pool of grant applicants, Nurse conveyed his approach to funding science: pick “people not projects.”

While Nurse emphasized applied research, he and the panelists spoke to the importance of broad research as well, recalling the original function of the Royal Society to encourage innovation and academic curiosity.

“With both [Harvard and the Royal Society], it was about finding a venue in which knowledge could be shared,” said Everett Mendelsohn, a history of science professor.

In the 19th century, when Harvard’s interactions with the Royal Society were frequent, both were serving as scientific research institutions.

But by the 20th century, the Society had shifted focus to being “the public face of established science in Britain,” said Alex Csiszar, who teaches history of science.

Moderated by Harvard Kennedy School professor of environmental science and public policy Sheila Jasanoff, the lecture was co-sponsored by Harvard’s Center for the Environment, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Graduate School of Design.

—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jessicabarzilay.