INGSA: the past, the present and the future

Address to the closing session of INGSA2021, Montreal
2nd September 2021
Sir Peter Gluckman
Founding Chair, International Network for Government Science Advice

The past

In 2009 I was invited by our Prime Minister to be New Zealand’s first chief science advisor (CSA). No one knew what the role meant and working with officials I had to write my own terms of reference. The input of the late Lord Robert May, former CSA in the UK and former president of the UK’s Royal Society, was most helpful. Whereas the science community may have thought the primary role would be as a lobbyist within government for public research, I defined the primary role as helping the executive of government use robust knowledge to develop better contextual understandings with which to identify policy options. At that time this seemed somewhat revolutionary in NZ, the policy community had felt quite able to reach out to experts as they felt they needed to, but a very siloed approach had developed. And with the exception of a few jurisdictions around the world, that was arguably the general state of play of science advice just 12 years ago. Over the years that followed, we established departmental science advisory roles in most major ministries.

Then in 2011 Fukushima happened.  In a consequent commentaries, James Wilsdon now at Sheffield University and Tateo Arimoto of Japan’s Graduate Institute for Public Policy, highlighted the deficiencies of science advice in that emergency.  Soon after the then Chief Executive of ICSU, the International Science Council’s predecessor, approached me to see whether I would convene a meeting of the world’s chief science advisors. I said no.  I couldn’t see how that would be helpful. It would be a very small group of mostly anglophone men. Those science advice ecosystems that  did exist were much more variable in structure and role,

So instead, I convened a globally and operationally diverse working party to explore whether a broad-based meeting of academics, policy makers, academy leaders and so forth should be held to discuss science advice. That led to the first international meeting on science advice to governments, which was held in conjunction with the ICSU general assembly in Auckland in 2014. Over 200 people from 40 countries were present including 20 LMICs. I particularly remember a very  impassioned challenge from Romain Murenzi of the World Academy of Science on the need to build capacity at the interface of science and public policy in developing countries – a challenge that was to greatly influence the priorities of the nascent organisation. At the same time the shape of the partnership between scholars and practitioners emerged – discussions extended from the philosophical and conceptual issues related to science advice, from scholars such as Heather Douglas, through to the operational challenges such as those experienced by Anne Glover, who was refreshingly honest about own role at the European Commission.

The 2014 meeting closed with an agreement to establish INGSA as an informal network under the auspices of what was then ICSU, now the ISC. Over the following year this was formalised with initial funding coming from the NZ government, the UK’s Royal Society and ICSU and later the Wellcome Trust was to fund a small secretariat. In 2015 we held our first experiment in capacity building in conjunction with Future Earth fellows at a meeting in Italy. The following year we started on what became an extraordinary series of workshops that INGSA itself ran – the first being in Hermanus, South Africa in partnership with the Academy of Sciences of South Africa. – Some 500 applicants from across Africa applied for some 40 slots – many for those who attended that first meeting remain heavily involved in INGSA. James Wilsdon, myself, Flavia Schlegel, then at UNESCO and Julie Maxton from the Royal Society in London served as initial mentors for the intensive program. We remain grateful for the support shown by Minister Naledi Pandor who championed the event and in doing so, gave an important boost and visibility to INGSA’s work. It was soon established that there was a need and an appetite for such work and INGSA has gone on to run over 45 workshops in 35 countries and in 9 languages. Some of these were generic and some more thematic. All were held in partnership with local hosts. Almost 2000 academic and policy professionals have attended an INGSA workshop.

Our second global meeting was held in Brussels in 2016 with the support of DG Research and I particularly acknowledge Commissioner Moedas and Johannes Klumpers for their support. It was attended by almost 1000 people. The discussions there started to dissect out different types of evidentiary input in different contexts from emergencies to foresight, and the distinctions between formal and informal advice. The discussions progressed with the 3rd international meeting held in Tokyo in 2018 at GRIPS under the leadership of Tateo Arimoto where the global issues of sustainability became quite a focus. And now we have just completed a very remarkable meeting in Montreal under largely virtual conditions even after delaying it by 12 months. This meeting has raised a number of challenges I shall return to.

But INGSA’s influence has not been limited to capacity building workshops and conferences – it is also respected for its convening power and in its role as a network of networks, fostering strong partnerships around the world with organisations such as the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission with whom we have partnered on several summer schools and related activities. Vladimir Sucha and David Mair and their teams have been particularly enthusiastic in helping INGSA’s development.

As INGSA grew and attracted core support from the Wellcome Trust and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), we established a globally-distributed operational model through regional chapters in Africa, Latin America and Asia to provide greater reach and contextual understanding. These chapters, each their own way, have been extraordinarily productive and I acknowledge their leadership for their great efforts.

The support of the Wellcome Trust and IDRC have been critical in supporting what has been an extraordinary effort by the secretariat and the regional counterparts.  In South East Asia we now have major regional capacity building effort underway (Southeast Asia Science Advice Network (SEA SAN) led by Zakri bin Abdul Hamid and support by IDRC and we hope soon to launch a similar initiative in Africa.

IDRC has also supported 3 rounds of grants to researchers and policy professionals in the Global South to undertake research projects, which have likewise been a great success. This INGSA Knowledge Associate program is well and truly becoming a leadership institute for the future of the science-policy interface.

INGSA’s leadership in the development of the field of science diplomacy is also noteworthy, having established the Foreign Ministries S&T Advice Network (FMSTAN), as a peer community of practice for those working in, or with, foreign ministries. The interest in the field grew so rapidly that INGSA created a special science diplomacy division which has had several meetings, the last convened in Vienna in late 2019 attracting several hundred delegates. Our work in science diplomacy led to me receiving the AAAS award in science diplomacy in 2015 and INGSA itself receiving an award for science diplomacy at Science Forum South Africa. Over the last 2 years, FMSTAN has been very active on matters related to Covid, including working with the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response to develop a new draft convention or treaty to deal with the obvious deficiencies in international pandemic management.

INGSA also reaches out to the network to develop issue-based reports and expert reviews from time to time.  For instance, at the request of the OECD we convened experts in wellbeing in the digital age and issued a report and policy and research agenda on digital wellbeing.  And thanks to the extraordinary effort of INGSA members in over 120 countries in the early months of the pandemic, we were able to build a unique online tool to track how evidence was being used in pandemic-related decision making.

It was this rapid growth that led to the need to formalise INGSA into a legal entity. It is now an incorporated body with a formal constitution, linked as an affiliated body to the ISC and, with the conclusion of this meeting, the newly constituted Governing Board, chaired by Rémi Quirion, will take effect. But the bond with ISC will also be strengthened in this formalization and that should enable INGSA to be a more strategic partner in the global collective efforts that are now so obviously needed to face our shared challenges.

But there are issues which we have left to the new board. For instance, at the moment membership is free and we have relied on philanthropy to sustain INGSA.  The question of balancing operational sustainability with universal accessibility will need to be addressed. The secretariat headed by Kristiann Allen in Auckland is small and efficient but can be easily overstretched as demand grows.  It will be important for the board and membership to clearly prioritise INGSA’s next steps.

When I became CSA there was not the degree of practical and theoretical insight on the science advice interface as there is today.  INGSA has made a great contribution to the many developments since that time: a recognition that synthesis and brokerage are not the same, a growing recognition of the distinctive nature of evidentiary synthesis;  further development of the distinct skills of evidentiary brokerage; a growing understanding of the criticality of pluralistic input including the role of the social sciences (for science advice largely emerged out of the defense sector 50 years ago); a better distinction between formal and informal science advice; a  better understanding (finally, some 30 years on) of post-normal science that engages society issues of high public interest. And in that time too, we have seen the challenge of disinformation of the loss of trust that accompanies it. We now see the business of science advising as a complex ecosystem with multiple actors but in most countries the ecosystem is still fragmented with missing elements. Indeed there are no ethical guidelines around science advice – both for those inside and outside of the formal system.

The present

Covid has highlighted many issues about the interface between science, public policy and politics, between science and society, and broadly in diplomacy. It is the biggest natural experiment in the role of science in policy making the world has seen, impacting on every country. But the issues that it illustrates are manifold. Who has access to give advice? Is there a plurality of disciplines providing input? Has scientific hubris and competition influenced what advice is heard or delivered? Has political ideology obscured or influenced advice? How often have we heard the political claim – “we are following advice” , when politicians have manifestly co-opted that claim to advance a specific agenda?

The pandemic has made it easy to see how, in some countries, science was strategically used, misused or ignored in relation to the political cycle. Covid brought the tension between evidence, societal values, politics and information sources into sharp focus. There have been examples where science has become politicised – and rejecting it has been a badge of political identity. Disinformation abounds, the media are polarised and this undermines public confidence in scientific knowledge.

Globally, it is clear to see that the multilateral policy and governance system has failed. Yes it was an extraordinary collaboration between public and private sector science and innovation to produce vaccines at an unprecedented pace, but that was built on decades of prior research. Vaccine nationalism abounds, inequities are manifest, and the WHO and UN system has been demonstrably inadequate, especially in the early days of the pandemic .

The lessons from the pandemic are multiple and those of us interested in the complex interactions between science, policy and society need to reflect. The lessons here will have to be extrapolated to other crises and to the more usual business of policy making and societal decision making. Only a handful of countries have yet used their experience in Covid to reflect on their own needs in scientific advice.  It has also raised a number of ethical issues which are now the subject of a joint working party between ISC and INGSA on ethical guidelines for science advice in emergencies.

I am often asked which countries have good science advice ecosystems. There is no singular system to recommend – each system must be appropriate to context, culture and constitutional arrangements. But given the broad range of needs in science advice, few countries have all the ingredients: the combination of formalised access, capacity to provide both evidence synthesis and brokerage, the capacities for providing science advice in both emergencies and under conditions of normal policy making. Given that an increasing number of challenges lie in the social space and in the multilateral space, the lack of academically active social scientists within advisory ecosystems and within foreign ministries are particular concerns.

The failure of the multilateral system to have a coherent input of science into global policy making is also a concern. In the case of climate change, we have built an extraordinarily complex and exaggerated system to try and establish some distinction between the evidence and the policy response. The abandonment of the nascent science advisory mechanism to the United National Secretary General which was poorly conceived and implemented was perhaps understandable. However,  rather than seeking a better solution there remains a vacuum. Obviously some UN technical agencies have formal scientific input but others have highly variable input. There are big questions here that need to be addressed just as there are at national and subnational levels.

The future

But after 12 years of working at the interface, there are a few considerations that I think will merit focus by the INGSA community.

The first is to acknowledge the changing view of robust evidence in a contested knowledge space.  What we know as ‘science’ (even in its broadest sense) lives alongside other knowledge systems that influence how people live their lives. Furthermore it is critical that in the processes of evidence synthesis there is an appropriate plurality of inputs and that brokerage does not inappropriately filter the analysis. As I pointed out 7 years ago in Auckland, evidence is a political construct with multiple sources of information that can be selected and labelled as evidence. Science is a set of processes that aim to provide a provisional understanding of the world around and within us but many other factors enter into decision-making by individuals and society. There are big challenges in how scientific disciplines sit alongside other forms of knowledge and the dynamics of values and biases inherent in the contexts in which advice is offered and received.  But we must also consider that we now live in a world of contested facts which conflates bias and values in new ways, which creates more challenges for the work of science advising.

Arising from this is a question that Dan Sarewitz posed eloquently in his outstanding conversation with Sabina Leonelli earlier today. Institutional trust and the acceptance of evidence are closely linked. The discussion of science advising has two components in each of two dimensions. First, compiling and synthesising evidence and the process of brokerage  represent a set of actions and choices guided by skill and, yes, interpretations – that’s one dimension about which much has been written and said already. But the  people undertaking these efforts and those receiving the advice also operate within structural constraints that represent the institutional dimension.  And in this, the nature of trusted institutions is changing: institutions need to evolve to sustain that trust and that will be an ongoing challenge for science advising  For in the end effective science advising is based on the assumption of institutional trust  and competency (as Roger Pielke has put it) – that is the people and processes doing it. If trust in the underpinning institutions is lost, then trust in the knowledge advising them becomes doubtful.

As the nature of science changes and the knowledge environment changes, and citizens have access to knowledge in ways they have never had before, one area of enquiry stands out as needing development: transdisciplinarity – this has the property of framing complex questions from multiple lenses from the outset, of recognising the entanglement of different knowledge systems and values, and therefore champions co-production and co-design from the outset. Yet the structures of our research systems are poorly designed to accommodate it  and  that has implications for how science advice is conducted and received.

In reflecting on my own work in New Zealand and then extrapolating from that to the global arena, it is clear that we have largely missed a key dimension of science and evidence advising: that is, better consideration of how advice is sought and received. Yes, we have made some progress in sensitising and in some cases upskilling  the so-called “demand side”, but there are a broader range of issues. Recently Anne Bardsley and I wrote a report pointing out the range of cognitive biases and political attitudes that can limit the reception of robust advice even in relation to detailed risk assessments. We need to understand these and how to confront them and counteract them. This too reflects on how societies reach collective decisions on the many complex transformations ahead of them

These are but some of the issues that need to be confronted. INGSA has a key role in identifying, linking and sharing expertise across jurisdictions, in developing expertise and in helping to elucidate the systems and structures that can assist collective decision making. INGSA has already engaged an increasingly diverse range of participants and indeed each of the four biennial meetings has shown the value of that plurality – that too must continue to be enhanced.

The nature of the relationship between science and society is changing. So too is the way public policy is made. INGSA has already seen enormous success focusing on capacity building within the science community to become more active at the interface of research and public policy.  It has also been influential in helping to build and structure that interface from the institutional perspective. I would suggest its challenge is now to focus more on the policy and political communities, and to  address head-on the challenge of disinformation and the misuse of knowledge in the political community.

As a final provocation: one matter I muse about from time to time is, did we get the name ‘INGSA’ right? The primary reason we have not explored it, is a matter of brand recognition. But in the English language, science and government can be narrowly interpreted to mean natural sciences and national level governments when the intent was, and remains, to better ensure that robust knowledge across all domains is synthesised and brokered to assist decision making at every level of governance from local to global – for that is where INGSA has filled a critical gap in both discourse and capacity building, and continues to have a critical role to play.

With its more formal structure, the strengthening of regional chapters and thematic divisions, INGSA will be well positioned to make a real difference. The transition to an elected board with a stable secretariat is important.

I thank and congratulate Rémi in taking up the presidency.  I will leave it to him to announce his newly elected board members.  But before I do that, I want to thank all those who have got INGSA to this point, in particular Heide Heckmann from the ISC, the Wellcome Trust and IDRC who have provided the critical fiscal support and strategic advice, our secretariat of Kristiann Allen, Grant Mills, Naomi Simon-Kumar, and previously Lara Cowen, members of our establishment executive and our chapter committees and division chairs for all their voluntary efforts. I thank Felicia Low for managing the legal transition. They should all be deeply proud of their work. And now over to Rémi as INGSA’s new president.