The Science of Science Advice - The Art of Science Advice (2)

(July 24th, 2015) Many government decisions have a scientific element. But who decides what kind of scientific advice will be used? How it is presented to the politicians and citizens they represent? Jeremy Garwood looks at the rise of the ‘Science of Science Advice’.

The host for the ‘Science Advice to Governments’ meeting was Peter Gluckman, New Zealand’s first-ever Chief Science Advisor (since 2009). In March 2014, Gluckman set out his own views on “The art of science advice to government” in Nature. He explained that he had come to realise that the primary functions and greatest challenges for a science adviser are providing advice not on straightforward scientific matters, but instead on issues that have the hallmarks of what has been called “post-normal science” where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”.

Such issues are considered to be pressing and of high public and political concern. The people involved may hold strong positions based on their personal values. Meanwhile, the science is often complex, incomplete and uncertain. In such circumstances, “diverse meanings and understandings of risks and trade-offs dominate.” Examples of ‘post-normal science’ included “offshore oil prospecting, legalisation of recreational psychotropic drugs, water quality, family violence, obesity, teenage morbidity and suicide, the ageing population, the prioritisation of early-childhood education, reduction of agricultural greenhouse gases, and balancing economic growth and environmental sustainability.”

Peter Gluckman explained that there was an “art” to providing good science advice and he offered his “Top Ten” guiding principles for “building trust, influence, engagement and independence” as a Chief Science Advisor. Although these principles were “distilled” based on his experience of government in a UK-style parliamentary democracy, he nevertheless thinks that his guidelines are relevant to “all those providing advice to senior levels of government.”

The “TOP TEN” list (discussed in more detail below).

  1. Maintain the trust of many.
  2. Protect the independence of advice.
  3. Report to the top.
  4. Distinguish science for policy from policy for science.
  5. Expect to inform policy, not make it.
  6. Give science privilege as an input into policy.
  7. Recognise the limits of science.
  8. Act as a broker not an advocate.
  9. Engage the scientific community.
  10.  Engage the policy community.

Maintain the trust of many

Gluckman says the science adviser must simultaneously seek to maintain the trust of the public, the media, policy-makers, politicians, and the science community. “This is especially true in times of crisis and is no small challenge.” He notes how food-safety panics in the UK, such as foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 and ‘Mad Cow’ disease in the mid-1990s, resulted in a strengthening of its science-advisory system. Likewise, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011 led to a reassessment of Japan’s science advisory practices. However, the challenge to Peter Gluckman’s “trust” came from an earthquake in 2011. Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city, experienced two major earthquakes in six months that devastated it, causing 200 deaths. This cluster of quakes was “unusual” and led to seismologists publicly competing in their interpretation of the nature of the fault-lines and future risks. “This confused the public and policy-makers” said Gluckman, and it took considerable dialogue with the scientists for them to understand the need for simple and consistent communication, and to accept that “erudite and, in many ways, self-serving scholarly discourse” did not belong on the front page of newspapers every day - “What was needed was clear communication of the knowns and unknowns”.

Protect the independence of advice

The advisory process needs to be protected from political interference and “premature filtering” in the policy process. A tension inevitably exists between “independent” advice and the (presumably) less independent policy processes of government. “It takes considerable diplomacy to create a trusted partnership between an external adviser and departmental officials.” Gluckman says that his own independence as a Chief Science Adviser was largely because he retained his academic job – he is Professor of pediatrics and perinatal biology at the University of Auckland – while serving as CSA to the prime minister of New Zealand. This also meant that his advisership was not linked to the government’s electoral cycle.

Report to the top

Scientific advice must be available directly - uncensored - to the head of government or the head of the relevant department. Indeed, the questions for which advice is most often sought tend to be politically sensitive and may cut across the policy domains of several different ministries. “The adviser’s perspective transcends these.”

Distinguish ‘science for policy’ from ‘policy for science’

Science advising is distinct from the role of administering the system of public funding for science. There is potential for perceived conflict of interest and consequent loss of influence if the science adviser has both roles. The adviser may be perceived as a lobbyist for resources, or the role may become restricted to the ministry that manages the national research funding. Again, there have been worries about the merging of these two roles. For example, in Ireland where the head of public science funding is also the CSA – this means that the person who decides what science will be funded is also advising policy on what areas of science should be funded (see LT editorial).

Expect to inform policy, not to make it

“Science advice is about presenting a rigorous analysis of what we do and do not know. Alone, it does not make policy.” Gluckman explains that there are many other factors affecting policy, including finances and public opinion. “Policy-makers and elected officials rightly guard their responsibility to define policy — and this means choosing between options with different trade-offs. This is not the domain of a science adviser.”

Give science privilege as an input into policy

But although there are other factors influencing government policy, the science adviser needs “to demonstrate why science should hold a privileged place among the ‘types of knowledge’ that may be meaningful to a politician.” For Gluckman, the privilege of science-derived knowledge comes from its set of standard procedures - for example, replication and peer review - that limit the influence of beliefs and dogma. By contrast, “the other inputs into policy are value-intensive, and rightly so.”

Recognise the limits of science

However, scientists must not overstate what is or can be known. They must find a way to balance the “view of science as a source of certainty” with the understanding that science is more a source of “probability” even though this can frustrate and confuse decision-makers and the public. “How many politicians or issues advocates have claimed that they can find a scientist to back any position?” This attitude reflects the dangerous temptation to use science to justify value-based beliefs and a lack of literacy about what science is.

Act as a broker not an advocate

Trust can be earned and maintained only if the science adviser or advisory committee acts as a knowledge broker, rather than as an advocate. Gluckman warns that when formal science advice is perceived as “advocacy”, trust in that advice and in the adviser is undermined, even if the advice is accepted. For example, exaggerated presentations about the causes of storms and floods can erode the credibility of the underlying argument about global warming.

Engage the scientific community

The science adviser must know how to reach out to scientists for the appropriate expertise, and help them to enact their “social responsibility” in making their knowledge accessible and understandable, and in being more self-aware about when they might be acting as advocates.

Engage the policy community

The role of the science adviser is often less about providing direct technical expertise than it is about “nudging” attitudes and practices to enhance the use of “evidence” in determining public policy. As an example of why this is necessary, Gluckman points to studies in New Zealand, Canada and Australia that all found that there was a tendency for government ministries “to design policy that met the minister’s requirements” rather than to advise on policy options “on the basis of available evidence.”

Global advice

Peter Gluckman reckons that the Top Ten principles that guide his own advisory work apply to most models of science advice, especially since the use of advisers, advisory councils or academies need not be mutually exclusive. “Different approaches suit different purposes and are the product of a country’s culture, history, political and social structures and approaches to civic reason.”

The 2014 Auckland science advisers’ conference resulted in the creation of a new International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) - a “forum for policymakers, practitioners, academies, and academics to share experience, build capacity and develop theoretical and practical approaches to the use of scientific evidence in informing policy at all levels of government”. INGSA states that it is committed to global “diversity” with the recognition that, on a social and political level, there are multiple cultures and structures of government and policy development. Therefore, “INGSA does not seek to endorse any particular form or structure of science advice as being superior to another.”

However, despite the international camaraderie at the Auckland meeting, there are many unresolved questions about how the science advisory process actually works and whether it is optimal. In March 2015, the Global Science Forum of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) published its report on ‘Scientific Advice for Policy Making’ that looked more closely at “the role and responsibility of expert bodies and individual scientists”.

In a future editorial, Jeremy Garwood will look in more detail at how science advice is provided and where it can all go wrong.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/Gajus

Last Changes: 09.08.2015

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