Lessons from national science advice

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up of the ends of fibre optics

Sir Peter Gluckman ONZ FRS
President of the International Science Council
Address to 7th Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum)
UN, New York, 6 May 2022

Well before the Covid-19 pandemic shone a light on the processes by which governments obtain scientific knowledge for decision-making, there was a growing interest in many countries and across academia in the systems and processes of evidence development and expert interpretation.  That interest led, in 2014, to the International Science Council sponsoring the formation of INGSA, the International Network for Government Science Advice (which I chaired until last year) as a global network spanning academics, policy makers and practitioners at the interface. Overall, science advice has increasingly been seen as critically important in both informing policy solutions and underpinning the public trust necessary to implement them successfully.

While formal processes of science advice first emerged after World War 2 to support national defense and security interests, science advice has come to support wider development and environmental interests through advice on technology and innovation.

It took some time for the distinction to emerge between science advice focusing on ‘policy for science’ and that which focuses on ‘science for policy.’ The former concentrates on managing the public research system through funding and infrastructure, while the latter focuses on providing scientific evidence to inform public policy making on a wide range of issues.  I shall focus only on the latter.

Evidence-informed public policy at any level of governance, from local to global, relies on two key and somewhat distinct functions.

First, evidence synthesis aims to establish the state of available knowledge on a given issue through a range of methods including literature reviews, scientific assessments, and expert inputs. Importantly, it must be unbiased and pluralistic by including the broad range of disciplines that can be applied to the problem. This is a skilled process and often national academies can fulfill that role. Sadly, several countries have not yet created national scientific academies.

Second, that synthesized evidence must be communicated to the policy maker. But this too is a sophisticated process requiring the skills of knowledge brokerage. This is an interactive and iterative process of dialogue between science and policy to help frame questions, and communicate certainties and uncertainties of the science and their implications in ways that are policy relevant but not policy prescriptive.  It must help decision-makers interpret scientific information, its meanings, implications, and limitations for the purpose of supporting their deliberations and decision-making. Brokerage is performed mostly through expert elicitation and is really a form of diplomacy bridging the gap between two cultures and modes of thinking.

However, in many countries creating appropriate structures to perform these functions remains a challenge.

While countries have a broad range of science advice systems, there are nonetheless some general principles:

Independence: science advice to policy should take the form of unbiased synthesis and honest brokerage rather than advocacy. This requires a level of independence from the policy making apparatus to ensure trusted advice for evidence-informed policy.

Legitimacy: Science advice must be conscious of the need to simultaneously maintain trust and legitimacy with multiple communities: the political community, the policy community, the public and the science community. The skill of a good knowledge brokerage mechanism is to protect the integrity of the advice even if there is potential or actual conflict with political or other values of the policy maker. Building and maintaining trust and legitimacy is aided by good public-facing communication. Science advice mechanisms should strive for openness of their process and deliberations. Of course, in matters of security, full transparency may not be possible. Importantly, engaging a plurality of disciplines and knowledges (including input from non-scientific stakeholders) is desirable to inform the synthesis of evidence, using robust and transparent processes and generate knowledge that is actionable.

Relevance and access: to be effective the advisory system must have access to those components of government or decision-making it is seeking to advise at the appropriate level. It is a necessary condition for the advisory mechanism to be effective and for it to produce timely and relevant advice. It involves an iterative process of knowledge brokerage, which begins with the collaborative work of framing the policy question and continues through ongoing dialogue between policy and science community collaborators to ensure that the evidence provided aligns with the needs of the policy community. For this work, knowledge brokers require scientific understanding, political acumen and an understanding of policy dynamics and contextual particularities.

Diversity: Those undertaking synthesis and brokerage must be attuned to potential biases in their own assumptions and processes as expert judgment plays a critical part. Pluralistic science advice mechanisms comprising a diversity of expertise and cultures helps to uncover hidden bias. This principle acknowledges that science is not free of values and that there is an inferential gap between what is known and what is concluded.

Clarification/reducing uncertainty: This principle holds that the main function of brokerage is to clarify what is known, not known, knowable and unknowable about an issue without seeking to provide a definitive answer or explanation, but rather to reduce doubt to the extent possible, from multiple perspectives.

Adaptable: Especially in the face of a crisis but often at other times, there will always be structural uncertainty or ignorance at any single point in time, and so science advice has to be adaptive and reflective of further knowledge as this unfolds.’

Humility: Science never provides all the answers or alone defines the choice a policy maker must make. Science advice must recognize and accept that many other factors must be considered by the policy maker, ranging from fiscal to public acceptance.  This recognition assists rather than inhibits the effectiveness of science advice.

A full advisory ecosystem also requires knowledge generators — that is, an active research community and knowledge communicators. It thus has many components, but the two key components are those processes for evidence synthesis and knowledge brokerage.

There are many ways these two functions can be delivered. Academies are perhaps the dominant model of providing evidence synthesis, but many other arrangements exist, such as a science and technology commission.  In general, synthesis is provided in the form of a report. But reports alone are not enough. It is critical that brokerage exists to ensure the implications of the evidence is fully understood by the policy community. This is often a much more informal and trusted process involving, in some countries, an individual Chief Science Advisor or a coordinated group of advisors across ministries, or in the case of the European Commission, a small panel of advisors.

Typically, there are four types of functions performed by science advice structures and these apply for countries at every level of development:

  1. Responding to government requests to assist where policy development is needed.
  2. Foresight, horizon-scanning and pro-actively raising awareness of issues, especially related to issues such as sustainability, risk assessment and emergent technologies.
  3. Mobilizing and managing relevant knowledge, and preparing advice during crises. Here the relationship between advice and action is even more direct and merits careful attention to the dangers if it is not well developed ahead of a particular crisis.
  4. Serving in a science diplomacy capacity and providing knowledge as basis for negotiating collective action responses to issues. Here, the importance of advice directly into foreign ministries is grossly underestimated, although an increasing number of foreign ministries are appointing science advisors to assist them as science and technological development becomes more pervasive in so many dimensions of diplomacy.

Brokers and synthesizers must be clear about which function they are intended to fulfill, which will dictate their methods, timeframes, degree of independence, ability to solicit a diversity of voices etc.

Of particular significance is the distinction between rapid advice for crisis and long-term foresight and advice for emerging issues. The methods and structures for each are not necessarily interchangeable.

Similarly, a distinction should be made between the context of formal science advice (studies, reports, etc.) and informal science advice (conversations, comments, feedback etc.).  There is a role for both types, and both must be accommodated structurally to be successful. For instance, informal advice cannot often eventuate without regular meetings of the advisory mechanism and the executive. For these reasons, consideration of both function and context is important in designing a model of science advice.

One consideration is ensuring the advice is properly understood. This is particularly critical in the case of risk assessment and communication. Too often policy makers discount scientific assessments of risk for narrow political considerations. This has played a critical role in how climate change and Covid-19 have been responded to; effective science brokerage must focus on addressing this issue.

In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen many other issues emerge, including lack of preexisting advisory mechanisms leading to competition for access and very narrow inputs, for example relying on rather narrow models that have the rhetorical power of numbers but do not reflect the complexity of human behavior and the granularity of society. Another factor has been the overt politicization in claims some politicians have made over “just following the science” and in the challenges associated with misinformation.

Finally let me turn to the multilateral system.  The Secretary-General noted in Our Common Agenda last year:

One of the primary roles of the United Nations is as a source of reliable data and evidence, providing public and verified information to help the world understand risks and opportunities. To strengthen this role, I will seek to re-establish the Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board and explore better linking of knowledge centres across the United Nations system, including in its specialized agencies, to reinforce impact.

This was a welcome recognition of the importance of the same principles operating in the multilateral system. However, the scientific community through the ISC and partner organizations of the major group has already pointed out that the past mechanism was not effective, for a variety of reasons about which I have spoken previously at this Forum. Whatever is developed needs a clear mandate and a dedicated secretariat and budget, reporting into New York.  It needs links to the UNSG’s office and General Assembly, other UN agencies and their science advisory units. A board alone is insufficient.  Importantly it needs formal links to the global scientific community to undertake the needed evidence synthesis, drawing experts from existing mechanisms of evidence synthesis and through the global science community via academies, social science associations and disciplinary scientific unions and other international science organizations as the expertise of any Board is necessarily limited. In doing so, it must embrace expertise from the Global South as well as the Global North, and from across cultural and linguistic communities, including Indigenous knowledges.

Yes, there are other models such as the IPCC for global assessments, but they cannot provide the rapid and needed inputs into the multiple issues that must be addressed if progress is to be made on all of Agenda 2030.

Science can do so much to advance the social, economic, and environmental health of the planet and its peoples, but only when the contract between sciences — both natural and social — and the policy community is reinforced at every level of governance.

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