Berks, wankers and wonks: how to pitch science policy advice

Stian Westlake in the Guardian: ” If you think about the kinds of people whom policymakers generally hear from when they cast about for advice, the distinction between berks and wankers is rather useful.
The berks of the policy world are easiest to recognise. They’re oversimplifiers, charlatans and blowhards. Berks can be trusted to take a complicated issue and deliver a simplistic and superficially plausible answer. In their search for a convenient message, they misrepresent research or ignore it entirely. They happily range far from their field of expertise and offer opinions on subjects about which they know little – while pretending to be on their expert home turf. And they are very good at soundbites.
Policymakers who consult berkish experts will get clear, actionable advice. But it could very well be wrong.
Most researchers, especially those with an academic background, will find avoiding berkhood comes naturally. After all, graduate school teaches rigour and caution. Academia reserves an especially withering contempt for professors who use their intellectual authority to advance controversial positions outside their area of expertise, from Linus Pauling’s speculations on vitamin C to Niall Ferguson’s opinions on US economic policy. No one wants to be a dodgy dossier merchant.
The risk of becoming a wanker is far more subtle. If the berks of the policy world are too ready to give an opinion, the wankers never give an opinion on anything, except to say how complicated it is.
In some ways, wankers are more harmless than berks, in the sense that being overconfident about what you know is often more dangerous than being too modest. Much bad policy is based on bad evidence, and rigorous research can expose that. Sometimes policymakers are asking the wrong questions entirely, and need to be told as much.
But policymakers who get all their advice from wankers are likely to be as ill-served as those who rely on berks. As anyone who’s ever advised a friend will know, good advice is not just a matter of providing information, or summarising research. It also involves making a judgment about the balance of facts, helping frame the issue, and communicating in a way that the person you’re counselling will understand and act on…
Neither glibness or prolixity make for useful advice. There are lots more tips on this from initiatives like the Alliance for Useful Evidence (of which Nesta, my employer, is a funder) and WonkComms.”