The science–policy nexus

by Sir Peter Gluckman
The Beehive Building, New Zealand's Parliament Building, against the Sun in Wellington.

A recent commentary published in Science (Rebuilding public trust in science for policy making), while focused on the Japanese science-policy nexus in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, makes some very important points.

To quote the authors, “A more robust system of linking the scientific community to the government is clearly needed. That is not just to prepare for the next national emergencies. In fact, science in a broad range of fields is deeply built into the everyday operation of today’s government. Science-based policy-making has grown ever more important in recent years, in parallel with the dramatic increase in the complexity and uncertainty of the ways in which science and technology interact with society and economy at the local, national, and global levels.”

They point out that the failure for scientific advice to be independent harms public trust in science-based experts, and with this they note a major erosion of trust in Japan. They highlight the efforts a number of countries such as the UK have made in recent years to improve the protocols surrounding the use of independent advice, and in New Zealand such concern was reflected in my own appointment. Japan is now looking to strengthen its own approach including the appointment of Science Advisor(s) to their Prime Minister.

The Japan Science and Technology Agency’s Centre for Research and Development Strategy has developed 10 principles for guiding government-science relations and they are worth reflecting on. These Japanese points parallel the advice I have provided and the work program that my office is undertaking.

The authors note that independent high quality scientific advice is essential to policy formation, but that there are situations when other considerations may over-ride that advice. They also point out the need for the underlying science advice to be balanced, and the need to acknowledge the limits of knowledge. Equally important is how governments respond to that advice.

To quote again, “It (Government) must not approach scientific advice with any preconception, distort scientific knowledge when making it public, or intentionally add wrong interpretations when using advice in policy-making. The government should explain how scientific advice was considered when drawing up policy. It is especially important for the government to explain the rationales when making policy decisions that are in conflict with the scientific advice obtained.”

The issue of how to create effective links between science and policy are complex, and different jurisdictions are approaching this in different ways. But the general need to do so is becoming increasingly well understood in a world where many of the challenges being collectively faced will rely on science and technology for solutions – even though this has the potential to create tensions with political processes.

Increasing dialogue on how to best accommodate this issue is occurring between national academies, science advisors and advisory councils. The authors put it well in saying “that (dialogue) is exactly what is needed now, as we have entered the age of intense, intricate interaction between science, technology, and the globalized society.”

In keeping with these imperatives, earlier this week the APEC leaders endorsed the proposal that the member State’s science advisors meet next year for the first time to promote dialogue. New Zealand and Indonesia will co-chair the meeting – I suspect such matters will be present on the agenda.

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