Cayman needs a science advisor

When confronted with challenges it seems to be human nature for us to shy away from the complex and grasp for simple answers. One only has to listen to our talk radio shows to hear over and over that everything has a simple solution. Commonsense and folk wisdom can and should rule our lives. This is the standard claim that just about everyone seems to agree on. But is it true?

The Cayman Islands are small but this does not mean our challenges are small. Like the rest of the world our current behavior places us on a collision course with many serious problems such as environmental collapse, overpopulation, runaway crime, failing schools, and so on. No matter what public opinion may say, our complex challenges require complex thinking, research, international collaboration, and progressive strategies. Science, so often overlooked or outright rejected in decision making here, is perhaps the key to getting it right on the big issues.

With this in mind, the time has come for the Cayman Islands government to employ a full-time science advisor. It is unreasonable to demand that our elected officials and high-ranking civil servants be deeply immersed in scientific literature and attend important science conferences. The fact is, however, they must be close to science if they hope to make sound decisions that are good for the long-term health and success of the Cayman Islands. Someone who knows science must have their ear. Charting new courses for energy needs and social programs, for example, is too difficult and too important to neglect scientific input. We can’t leave these things to people whose primary skill is campaigning, or to whatever assortment of consultants and salespeople find their way to Cayman. To be clear, I’m not knocking politicians. They are who they are. It would be unfair for anyone to expect them to be scientists. Politicians have too many meetings, ribbon cuttings and funerals to attend. A permanent, full-time science advisor, however, would likely improve government decision making by filling in the blanks for our leaders.

Obviously no one scientist can be an expert in every relevant discipline. However, someone with a strong science background will understand the scientific process, the importance of credible evidence, how to collect and sort through research, and so one. This person would be able to offer warnings and encourage the wise course when politicians are deciding how to spend millions of dollars and re-engineer society. Timely words of advice might save money and help us avoid mistakes that harm peoples’ lives.

I can easily think of several examples where a government science advisor might have helped government. One might have raised a red flag when it was announced by the Department of Tourism in 2008 that government was going to purchase the 2,290 ton USS Kittiwake with the intention of sinking her in Cayman waters to become a dive site. Whereas a politician might not know about recent research that suggests iron leaching out of sunken ships may cause ecosystem changes that kill coral, a science advisor might.

I don’t want to be sued so I won’t go into detail but I recall a visit to Grand Cayman several years ago by some North American scalawag who was peddling one of the most ridiculous claims I have ever heard. It was a sort of astrology of the face. He managed to fill a hotel conference room with local people, including some civil servants and at least one elected official. He told them how to tell honest faces from evil faces and smart faces from dumb faces. This is invaluable knowledge to have when it comes to dating and hiring employees, he said. It terrifies me to this day that someone might have been so gullible as to actually put such madness into practice when hiring and appointing people to government jobs and committees. If our government had a science advisor on the payroll at the time she or he could easily have explained away such nonsense in a brief email to all government employees. I also remember a drug-sniffing machine that government bought for the airport many years ago. It didn’t work, of course. A good science advisor undoubtedly would have suggested that someone ask for evidence and research to back up such a machine before writing a check. (By the way, that clunker should not be confused with fast-approaching technology that will indeed be able to “sniff” out drugs.)

Cayman’s government clearly needs a full-time official science advisor working with our government leaders. This person will not solve all of our problems, of course. The job would be difficult. First of all, she or he would have to be capable of dispensing advice and information without bias or concern for who may not like it. Secondly, our leaders would have to actually listen to the advice given. The latter, no doubt, would prove to be the biggest challenge of all. didn’t work, of course. A good science advisor undoubtedly would have suggested that someone ask for evidence and research to back up such a machine before writing a check. (By the way, that clunker should not be confused with fast-approaching technology that will indeed be able to “sniff” out drugs.)Cayman’s government clearly needs a full-time official science advisor working with our government leaders. This person will not solve all of our problems, of course. The job would be difficult. First of all, she or he would have to be capable of dispensing advice and information without bias or concern for who may not like it. Secondly, our leaders would have to actually listen to the advice given. The latter, no doubt, would prove to be the biggest challenge of all.Guy P. Harrison’s columns appear twice per month in the Observer on Sunday. Contact guy at [email protected]

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