The evolving nature of science advice

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up of a liquid being pipitted into a test tube

Over the last few months I have been involved a number of discussions about the evolving nature of science advice. Of particular note have been the sessions in which I participated during the annual meeting of the AAAS. I was part of a session on issues in international science advice with Heide Hackmann (chief executive of ICSU), Robin Grimes (science advisor to the UK Foreign Office) and Nina Federoff (former president of AAAS and science advisor to the US Secretary of State) as well as part of a session on science advice ( along with Dan Sarewitz (a science policy scholar who writes a regular commentary in Nature) and Vladimir Sucha (Director General of the EU’s Joint Research Centre). Both sessions noted the increased focus globally on enhancing the science-policy nexus. I also had a lengthy discussion with Minister Duncan of Canada as she explores how to re-establish the channels of science advice to Government in Canada, and this has prompted some reflection on a number of points. As well, I have just come from an executive meeting of the International Network on Government Science Advice (, which is well into planning the second international conference on science advice to governments, in collaboration with the European Commission (Brussels on 29-30 September, (

INGSA is launching an extensive process to consult on and develop a set of principles and guidelines for science advice in response to the challenge of the World Science Forum declaration of 2015 (  Such guidelines will need to reflect the multiple types and purposes of science advice including those of ministry scientists, regulatory agency scientists, academies, science advisors and those involved in emergency responses. It is hoped to present a draft to the World Science Forum in 2017.

I have been particularly energised by the experiences we had at the INGSA workshop that I led, in partnership with other members of INGSA, for scientists from 14 African countries on building science advisory capacity (the workshop was supported in part by the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other support was provided by the Wellcome Trust, Royal Society (London) and the South African Department of Science and Technology).  We used a case-based teaching approach.

The interaction with our African colleagues helped all of us to think through a number of issues from new perspectives.  One matter of note is the role that the Global Young Academy (GYA) is playing in ensuring that younger scientists develop and have an active voice at the interface of science and public policy. A number of GYA alumni and active members were involved in the workshop. We have therefore asked the GYA to organize a meeting alongside the INGSA meeting in Brussels (, to ensure their input informs the draft principles.  The lack of any members of the GYA in NZ highlights the need to think of ways to develop local capacity in the science-policy interaction and my Office will be announcing an initiative to address this next month.

This capacity building workshop was held in conjunction with the Inter-Academy Partnership meeting on Science Advice where I gave the opening address ( In the discussion that followed I was struck by the need for us all to think more about the ‘post-normal’ character of the issues on which much advice is sought. It is a dimension that seems foreign to some natural scientists but is increasingly core to effective advice.

Reflecting on the NZ science advisory system, I have noted the interest with which our particular model is being received internationally. Eight key ministries have now appointed Departmental Science Advisors, as part-time secondments from academic or CRI roles. MBIE is seeking to replace Jim Metson (who has become Pro VC of Research at the University of Auckland) with two part-time and complementary advisory appointments to focus on the evidence-policy nexus (  and a fulltime chief scientist (  to focus on operational matters. I hope these advertised and important roles will attract a good field of candidates.

The departmental science advisors have been providing advice to their respective agencies, and together we have been working with the central agencies on ways to improve the use of evidence more generally in policy formation and evaluation.  The social sector departmental science advisors and I have continued to work on the use of evidence to support budget proposal evaluations in the social sector. Much of this work will form the basis of my third report to the Prime Minister on the matter. This report will include consideration of the role of departmental science advisors; how big data is affecting the policy process itself; enhancing interaction between academia and the policy process; and the more general role of horizon scanning, technology assessment and forecasting.

At a more systemic level the recently announced road mapping exercise on the needs of New Zealand in Conservation and Environment Science over the next 20 years ( )offers a unique opportunity to think through the types of research that will be needed so that the Government of the day has the information it will need for future policy development. One of the real challenges at the science and public policy interface is that policy decisions today rely on science that has already been done. So, given the inevitable lag time for the production of scientific results, we need now to be thinking about the policy needs in the future. This road mapping process is an important opportunity for stakeholder engagement and reflects the reality that science is now well embedded within society: the end-users of environmental science include the government, regional authorities, civil society and the private sector.

Increasingly, the discussion on science advice is reaching beyond national levels. Cities and regions themselves have critical needs in science – such as infrastructure, transport and environmental management. It is noteworthy that a number of cities in Europe are formalising their own science advisory mechanisms. In areas such as public health, initiatives such as that found in Amsterdam are now showing what can be done in dealing with the obesity challenge, for instance. Initiatives like in Auckland are bringing together city and health board officials with academic researchers, which is an important step in the needed direction.

Science informs but does not generally make policy; the latter is determined on the basis of many more values-based considerations including the electoral contract. Science must make special efforts to gain purchase, but increasingly, it is becoming an accepted and important input into public policy making. These challenges are magnified considerably at the international level where national and jurisdictional interests add another layer of values-based perspectives. Establishing effective scientific inputs into global governance has to date required complex assessment processes like the IPCC. Given the critical role of science to essentially all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – both in setting meaningful indicators and in addressing the goals and targets, the global community needs to find more effective ways of linking science to global policy and associated international governance instruments. One way of doing this is to encourage better communication between national science advisory systems: INGSA is part of this effort, as is the APEC annual Chief Science Advisors and Equivalents meeting that Peru will be hosting this year.

There are multiple ways in which governments arrange their scientific advice mechanisms. In thinking about these arrangements, it is important to recognize the different roles and functions of those acting from within the formal structures of government  (like science advisors) in comparison to (and in collaboration with) those acting outside of these (like the Royal Society of New Zealand). Their roles and modus operandi will be very different.  However, in providing science advice for public policy, they are similar in needing to distinguish this role from that of advocacy for public science funding per se. Even though both science advisors and academies inevitably play some role with respect to the latter, it remains important for the effective and trusted input of knowledge transfer and science into policy that this goal does not become confused with advocacy for the science system itself.

As we think more about the underlying principles to inform guidelines for effective science advice both globally and domestically, it will be important to reflect on the diversity of functions of science advice.  An effective science advisory system needs a balance between internal and external inputs. To enhance this interaction I invite the President and the Chief Executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand to the meetings of the Departmental Science Advisors network.  The Royal Society’s own policy-relevant studies are an increasingly important part of the mix – for example last week’s release of a report on Climate Change mitigation

There are many scientists employed in government ministries and agencies – sometimes to undertake research themselves and sometimes through external contracting. But in some agencies there is also a danger that Wikipedia becomes a short–cut to proper analysis of the science by policy analysts.  A key role of science advisors is to obviate the risk of inappropriate analysis. As big data becomes more important in policy development, the opportunities for rich and much more nuanced analysis multiply, but so too do the risks of mistaken insights through inappropriate statistical design, for instance. This is why we will need the emergence of new sets of skills and protocols required, not just from the data analysts, but also from the policy-makers themselves in understanding what big data can and cannot tell us.

We will need robust mechanisms for quality control and separation of summation of the evidence from other policy considerations. Otherwise there is the danger of policy-driven ‘evidence’ emerging. In agencies with regulatory functions these issues can become more acute, as depending on the agency, other considerations (such as policy setting set by government) may properly enter into the regulator’s decision. Irrespective, the scientific assessment itself should be unfiltered.

The role of academies and other formally constructed advisory groups (such as the new Science Advisory Mechanism of the European Commission) in giving advice on questions where there is time for deliberative evaluation has been well canvassed previously. The key challenge is in structuring what is asked and how it is asked so that the answers they give are both scientifically robust and relevant to policy makers.

But advice is frequently needed at multiple points in the messy policy process, particularly at the brainstorming stage. Departmental advisors can have a major role here. This informal type of advice to policy makers and the Executive is what occupies the bulk of time of many science advisors internationally.  In some countries, especially those with a strong select committee process, this is supplemented by science information mechanisms within the legislature. The UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology ( is an example of an apolitical office that produces fact sheets to meet the projected information needs of parliamentarians.

Of all the tasks for individual advisors, perhaps what is most rapidly evolving is the importance of being an effective conduit between decision-makers and the science community in the event of crises and emergencies. This is a critical but complex interface as most emergencies have systemic effects beyond the immediate causal domain. Internationally, this issue is getting considerable attention, spurred not the least by the Fukushima disaster. Of note are the recent Sendai process conducted under the leadership of UNISDR, and the recent statement by G7 science advisors ( who meet recently.  The Global Science Forum of the OECD also have this on their agenda and it is the main topic of discussion at the APEC Chief Scientists and Equivalents meeting later this year, responding to a request from the APEC Leaders’ declaration of last year ( which asked that the science advisors consider ways to enhance internationally integrated scientific advice in and surrounding emergencies. Domestically we are actively engaged with our crisis management officials in thinking through these issues, including not only ensuring rapid advice to decision-makers, but also how to effectively and efficiently keep the public informed in rapidly evolving situations.

Politicians are constantly charged with having to make policy decisions in the absence of certainty. So too are individuals and society as a whole.  This raises many issues of perceptions of risk, precaution and tradeoffs. Over coming months my Office will be releasing a series of discussion papers on “decision making in the face of uncertainty” which are intended to help us all understand decision making both in our collective and individual decisions.

It goes without saying that the decisions we make today will affect society and the planet for years to come.  A more sophisticated and science-informed understanding stands to have an important and lasting impact.  Indeed, this is evidenced in the place of science in each of the sustainable development goals approved by the UN General Assembly last year. This role for science is well reviewed in a report from ICSU ( These goals, which apply to all governments, highlight the critical need for science inputs into policy as well as research that will support future policy developments. These drivers, in part, explain the increasing and essential importance of scientific inputs into the policy process.

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