Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the UNESCO UNITWIN Complex Systems Digital Campus & The Open University's online course, COVID-19: Pandemics, Modelling, and Policy. Join the course to learn more.
Sunrise evoking vision for the future

The Visions of Policymakers

In democracies citizens want their politicians and policy makers to have vision for a better future. Policy makers are expected to foresee problems and opportunities. In this context their policies should keep their citizens safe, healthy and economically secure.

This assumes that policy makers can see into the future, even when the future and all paths to it are complex and have many uncertainties. How can they do this? How can they predict the possible outcome of alternative policies?

Many amusing things have been said about prediction. The following come from Stephenson [1].

  • Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. Nils Bohr

  • I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is much better to prophesy after the event has already taken place. Winston Churchill

  • An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today. Evan Esar

  • Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks. Mark Twain

  • It is said that the present is pregnant with the future. Voltaire

  • It is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all. Henri Poincaré

The first and second can be considered a warning. The third reflects our ability to make confident predictions and to try wriggle out of any commitment we have made. The fourth is essential for science - if the future were completely independent of the past all data would be useless and the future would be completely unpredictable. The last reflects the view of many in the complex systems community.

Even though the future is uncertain policy makers must have a view of possible future events. Throughout history policymakers have engaged soothsayers, astrologists and other forecasters. One attraction of science is that is it based on observation, and it can support evidence-based policy.

The relationship between scientists and politicians can be difficult for both sides. In their laboratories scientists are used to being charge. However in a policy context they must always defer to politicians. Politicians have the mandate and money, and this makes them senior partners in the science-policy arena. Winston Churchill said “scientists should be on tap, but not on top”.

Although they are the senior partners, policy makers need scientists for their domain knowledge and research knowhow. Politicians turn to scientists to provide ways to understand unexplained events explore the future.

Increasingly today science investigates systems that are complex and require transdisciplinary teams to explore them. A major tool in the science of complex systems is modelling and computer simulation. This requires more than mathematicians, statistician and computer scientists. Models depend on the assumptions being made which may come from many domains. Domain specialists are required to provide the empirical and theoretical assumptions. Interdisciplinary science requires interdisciplinary teams and a transdisciplinary outlook.

In the next step you will see how a simple model can be built to explore epidemics. In subsequent steps you will see how this model can be used to explore policy options. Caveat emptor - our models are very simple. Although we think they give a good insight into the way modelling can be used for policy, there are not designed for professional applications.

What do you think?

Do you think it is possible to make predictions? How do predictions in policy vary from predictions made in the scientific laboratory?

[1] D. B. Stephenson, ‘Famous Forecasting Quotes’, Last Updated: 28 December 1998. http://www1.secam.ex.ac.uk/famous-forecasting-quotes.dhtml

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

COVID-19: Pandemics, Modelling, and Policy

UNESCO UNITWIN Complex Systems Digital Campus