Thoughts from Nairobi: Science advice from international to national and back again

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Flags of UN and EU stand in European council Building at Brussels, Belgium.

I have just been in Nairobi at the inaugural Science Policy Forum that preceded the United Nations Environmental Assembly (the General Assembly of the UNEP) ( (see also #SCIPO2016). I delivered the opening address and then took part in two panel discussions at this event. The purpose of this Forum was to better connect the science community with the international policy-setting community in the environmental space. The question of how to enhance the use of science within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the associated environmental challenges highlights many complexities of giving and using science advice in general.

The UN system is based on representative decision-making by its member nation states. Because of this, international decision-making ultimately depends on the relationship between domestic policy advice (including scientific advice) and diplomatic and political processes within each member country. While many scientists, NGOs and interest groups project their attention directly towards global level activity, the reality is that many of these initiatives rely on individual countries recognising that it is in their (enlightened) self-interest to work together.  It follows from this argument, that international science advice requires effective national science advisory mechanisms that are well linked to their diplomatic processes. Such national science advisory mechanisms need to also interact with each other in a number of ways. This process also suggests that consistent principles should operate at the science policy interface at both national and international levels.

The interaction between science and public policy is inevitably complex and is but a subset of a far more complex set of interactions between science and society generally. These relationships are not linear and iterative. The policy process at the national level is rarely as described in the textbooks and often perceived from the outside as a logical step-wise process that moves from problem identification to intervention and evaluation before another turn of the wheel starts the process again.  But the reality is much fuzzier than that; it is a process I have sometimes termed ‘post-normal’ policy making, building on Funtowicz and Ravetz notion of post-normal science (

In the model of public science that evolved in the first half of the 20th century, science itself was relatively linear and with a strong self-belief that it revealed ‘truth’. Indeed Robert Merton, a sociologist, was among the first to describe science as an essentially social process, however his view was of the science community standing somewhat apart from the rest of society yet informing it[1] But since then, science has evolved in many ways and is now much more complex; It now deals with non-linear systems and these often involve considerable uncertainty. Indeed, much of science, especially in the health, biological, environmental and social sciences must express findings in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. In such complex systems it is inevitable that there will always be incomplete understanding. Yet it is this very type of information that impacts so significantly on the policy agenda. The model Merton described for the interaction between science and society has fortunately now lost its currency. Today’s science must be much more explicitly embedded in society; its application is assessed, weighed and used (or not) by much more informed publics who know that scientific evidence alone cannot solve all manner of wicked problems.

Further, we must recognise that it yesterday’s science that is informing our decisions today, while today’s science will inform decisions of the future. That is a major reason why New Zealand has embarked on an environment and conservation science research roadmap ( to identify the knowledge needed to inform and assist policy-making in these domains over the next 20 years.

Even with these efforts however, there inevitably are going to be many uncertainties and knowledge gaps.  But policy decisions must be made and it is inevitable that whatever the decision, there will need to be some assessment of risk. It therefore follows that issues of risk perception and understanding become important in most policy decisions. Appetites for risk and perceptions of it are well recognised to differ amongst individuals and societies for many reasons. Furthermore, the publics, policy makers and politicians all have their own values, worldviews and perspectives; these can be affected by where they sit within societal decision making processes. Many of these dimensions are discussed in my recent paper on decision making in the face of uncertainty ( .

The Mertonian model can lead to the assumption that science can and should dictate to policy makers what to do.  But this is not a realistic or possible (if it ever was) expectation. While science-derived evidence should hold an increasingly privileged place, policy-making is much more complex than consideration of evidence alone. The values of the populations themselves become part of the decision-making. Often these values can clash with the conclusions of science as we have seen with the substantive group of individuals in some countries who remain sceptical about anthropogenic climate change for instance or reject the use of genetic technologies irrespective of their demonstration of safety. This is the realm of post-normal science and science-informed policy making, not technocratic decision-making. And it is why robust and effective science communication is so important.

It is important to parse what this all means. We know that science itself is not free of values. But the values that are core to science are largely not those we typically equate with everyday interpersonal values.  Scientific ‘values’ or norms are about protecting integrity of research processes, recognising and minimising bias in collecting and analysing data or when making judgements about what conclusions can reasonably be inferred from the data. Indeed, perhaps the biggest value judgement in science is to critically consider the sufficiency of evidence with which to reach a conclusion from complex, sometimes contrary and even confusing data. Further it is inherent to the nature of science itself that most scientific conclusions must be seen as provisional. This is because there is one other core value within the scientific process – that of organised skepticism.   The ‘values’ of relevance to society more generally may be different to those which are integral to the scientific process – though there are commonalities such as honesty and integrity.

There is a large social science literature on how individual and societal values may be described. It is clear from this that science is not the only relevant epistemology: the issues of local and indigenous knowledge, of religion, tradition, experience, culture and ideological orientation also play into how any issue is perceived. A further dimension is how people may have, for instance, either a hierarchal, collective or an individualistic worldview. All of this plays into how different groups and individuals perceive a given issue, which is an important part of the political process. This diversity of perspectives is enriches our society and our democracy, but it also creates real challenges for both science and risk communication, and in turn for reaching societal consensus on many issues.

The interaction between science and policy is part of a more complex set of interactions between science, the varied and diverse components of any society, policy makers and politicians.  We must avoid the Mertonian trap of seeing the world solely through the eyes of science. A technocratic approach to policy will not save us or the planet. We can contend that science has some privilege amongst epistemologies because of its inherent processes and values, but nevertheless it can only inform and not create policy.

So what makes for an effective science-policy interaction? Firstly there must be a combination of evidence-informed inputs that are both internal and external to government’s own processes. In many countries such input is derived from a mix of science advisors who operate within the formal government system, and national academies that operate from outside of it. These are different sources of scientific information, but both are necessary roles with diverse expectations and obligations. One difference is the extent to which they can respond quickly and at multiple points in the policy process. However, both depend on the trust of multiple stakeholders to carry out a knowledge brokering role.

In this interaction between science, society and policy-making, the boundary role of science advising also includes science communication both for reasons of transparency and for trusted communication in crises ( .  But there is also a need for a much wider range of science communicators with skills appropriate for talking to the many different publics with diverse world-views and values. Recent evidence[2] suggests that a brokerage approach is particularly valuable in dealing with such diverse audiences. ‘Science advocacy’ is also an inevitably part of the policy process. But this is distinct from the brokerage of knowledge that is essential to trusted and effective science advice whether provided by an academy or an appointed advisor.

These discussions have emphasized the complex relationship between science and broader values-based domains. Because of the primacy of the national perspective in determining a nation’s diplomatic position internationally, there is an additional set of values-based considerations at the science-policy nexus when considered in international perspective. Thus, creating effective science-informed policies with a view to the Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, will be improved if there are healthy national science advisory systems in the first instance. Without these, developing effective transnational scientific advice will be very difficult.

The most important element in providing science to support decision making in the international arena is to ensure that the science used to inform domestic policy also leads to a national recognition of the need to move from a position of self-interest to one of enlightened self-interest in the international arena (where the self-interest of nation states is simply inevitable).  In this way, the inevitable  influence of nation states on global agenda-setting processes is more likely to reflect the scientific consensus which is generally already present in those international organisations that have scientific advisory boards or panels (especially those like UNEP that have data collation roles). The IPCC can be seen as an example of such a process that recognised the importance of individual countries’ own science advice to be represented if a collective global process is going to work.  But even then, to be successful, such systems rely on science helping national policy makers to recognise that it is in their country’s self-interest to address climate change challenges jointly.

Whether we seek to address post-normal scientific issues at a national or global level, robust domestic science advisory mechanisms are essential. To establish such mechanisms remains a challenge for many countries, both developed and developing.

[1] Merton, R. “Note on Science and Democracy.” Journal of Legal and Policy Studies. 1 (1942): 115.

[2] Nature Climate Change by Shi et al (

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