The science-policy nexus and the green transition

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Aerial view of a Sunrise over Waimakariri River, South Island, New Zealand.

Speech to the Workshop on Science for the Green Transition
An accompanying event to the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union with UKRI, FORMAS, CSIC and Science Europe)

7 September 2021

Sir Peter Gluckman
President-Elect, International Science Council
Director, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland

I have been asked to speak to the role of science-policy advice in expediting the green transition. I would rather focus on a few points. Ultimately, policy making is but one form of collective decision making, and it is made or influenced by many players: individuals, local communities, regional and national governments, and multilateral bodies like the EU.

When we talk about the green transition, Governments do have the core role of setting regulations, creating incentives and disincentives and ensuring that the trade-offs that result have acceptable consequences. The challenge is that, as we have seen for Covid-19, nearly everything is interconnected; in both Covid-19 and the green transition we are dealing with complex open systems involving microeconomics, macroeconomics, trade, resilience, health, social welfare, employment, migration, transport, technology, innovation, geostrategic issues, social well-being and cohesion, and the many dimensions of the environment.

One of the clarifications that has emerged over recent years in thinking about science policy advice is the distinction between evidence synthesis and evidence brokerage [1]. There is sometimes a tendency for people at the interface not to recognise these require different skills and sometimes different institutions and actors.

Evidence synthesis is the process of bringing different components of relevant knowledge together in a way that is valuable, appropriate, and inclusive for decision making. Particularly when we confront an issue such as climate change, there is no singular science that can own the analysis or answers. Importantly, the social sciences are as critical as the natural and technological sciences if strategies are to be developed so that incentives and regulations are to work and behaviours are to change. And the social sciences are not monolithic; psychology, decision science, sociology, economics, political science, legal science, anthropology and so forth all have something to contribute depending on the context and question. Evidence synthesis crossing disciplinary boundaries is both complex and critical.

It is also important to recognise that evidence has different meanings to different actors. While we may think of evidence in terms of the knowledge obtained from robust scientific studies, evidence for the non-scientist can be anecdote, personal observation, or come from indigenous or local knowledge, religious beliefs, customs and traditions. These other sources of evidence have validity in the minds of some stakeholders and must be respected. This can be a particular challenge as we confront complex issues with both politicians and civil society. There Is nothing new here but the lessons from post-normal science are too often forgotten.

‘Mr Google’ and ‘Mr Facebook’ — depending on which echo chamber you choose to belong to, and irrespective of accuracy — have become the dominant source of much knowledge for most people, even those in the policy and political arenas. Disinformation confuses and confounds. These differing sources of information create real challenges and require sensitivity, trust and skill to address.

Evidence brokerage is not a one way process between the scientific community and tech policy community (and indeed civil society). It’s a distinctive skill that to be effective requires access to the decision maker, an understanding of the issues they want to confront and the ability to then communicate those to the community of knowledge that can provide part of the answers. But the answers must be prepared in a  way that is valuable to the stakeholder. That includes understanding the other implications that the decision maker must take into account. It must also include being accessible and understandable. Jargon that shows off the intellectual expertise of the provider is not helpful and many academies have fallen into that trap.

Science advice first needs to be prepared in a way that is appropriate to the stakeholder or customer. Without compromising the science, what is presented to a minister of a government is very different to what an analyst needs in a ministry, and in turn is different to how it would be presented to members of civil society. Different skill sets may be needed in each of these interfaces. It is where so often the science community can get it wrong — too much information goes to a high-level decision maker, but not enough elsewhere in the system.

And that brings to the fore another issue: that of trust. Roger Pielke first introduced the concept of an honest broker in this context in his book of the same title, a concept my own work has further explored. While it is always tempting to be an advocate for a particular solution and aggressively argue for one solution, that can undermine trust in the advice. Policy making requires more insights than those that come from science alone. Policy making is always about choices, and at any level it involves deciding between different options that have different impacts on different stakeholders with different spillover effects. Policy making has to consider those values based domains which go well beyond the values embedded within science itself.

It is possible to advocate for the need for a solution and suggest possible solutions without undermining trust if done in a way that is respectful of the other considerations I have mentioned. With trust, one can gain the opportunity for iterative engagement with policy development rather than firing a single shot. That iterative interaction is needed to have real impact. This generally requires institutions such as the Joint Research Centre (of the European Commission) or science advisors to be trusted brokers within the system. Reports alone rarely shift the dial; they need to be inserted at the right time in the right parts of the process and reinforced through iterative brokerage.

Discussions of the green new deal or its equivalent in other jurisdictions can become somewhat monotonic, pushing singular, even hyperbolic claims or ignoring the complexity of the issue. That does not help. Complex jargon and diagrams populate the IPCC reports; even the summaries for policy makers are largely inaccessible. The points can be made much more simply and compellingly.  Critically, we need to provide advice and support to a complex multivalent transition that will impact every aspect of the human condition: for example, what will be required in the compulsory education system, in industry, in food production, in energy production, in transport and so forth? None of these questions are truly independent from each other.

We need to learn how to communicate systems thinking in much more effective ways. After all, in the end that is what we are trying to do — to shift a climate system impacted by human endeavour. We need to show what the system is, how its parts interrelate and where we can make impacts that will be effective. It is tempting to rely on the rhetorical power of numbers and models, but much more is required and there are important caveats about their use [2]. This requires new ways of communicating science, it also requires new ways of doing science. Transdisciplinary and post normal science will become much more important. Systems thinking and systems science are critical areas. Evidence synthesis and brokerage are skills that need to be more broadly available.

But an even bigger issue can be the cognitive bias and political considerations that resist hearing advice. Understanding how to overcome such biases is perhaps the biggest challenge. This is a large and poorly developed subject on which much of my own work is focused.

In summary, addressing the green transitions will require new ways of thinking, performing and communicating knowledge. It requires rethinking not only the training of scientists but also the funding of research and of how researchers are recognised. Over the past year, the ISC working with the Global Forum of Funders and the Global Research Council has been looking at ways to accelerate these changes. I hope some of this will translate into action in the near future.

[1] For an extensive discussion see Gluckman P, Bardsley A, Kaiser M (2021) Brokerage at the science-policy interface: from conceptual framework to practical guidance. Humanities & Social Sciences Communications 8: 84.

[2] Kaiser M, Buklijas T, Gluckman P (2021) Models and numbers: Representing the world or imposing order? Perspectives on Science. DOI:

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