Scientists are giving advice, but are governments listening?
28 September 2016
In an article originally appearing in the Guardian, Sir Peter Gluckman and James Wilsdon argue the need for evidence to influence policy in addressing many of the pressing social, economic and environmental challenges on the world stage. Read the full article below.
Tomorrow, six hundred policymakers, practitioners and researchers from seventy-two countries will assemble in Brussels for a meeting of the International Network for Government Science Advice. All this week, hundreds more have been participating in the What Works Global Summit in London. If conferences are anything to go by, these are boom times for evidence and expertise in policymaking. But the mood of many participants will be sober rather than celebratory.
There’s certainly progress to point to. In the past decade, policymakers from Beijing to Brussels, Prague to Pretoria, and Wellington to Washington D.C., have experimented with new institutions for scientific advice and evidence-informed decision-making. More established advisory bodies – such as the US Office for Science and Technology Policy, which recently celebrated its fortieth birthday – have become increasingly sophisticated and multi-disciplinary. An expanding cohort of scientific academies and learned societies is investing in policy capacity at a national level, and networking to influence global agendas, through new collaborations like the InterAcademy Partnership and the European SAPEA platform.
In the international arena, there are now more regular and intense interactions between science advice, foreign policy and science diplomacy. Several governments, including Japan, New Zealand, United States and the UK, have appointed science advisers to their foreign ministries. There has been debate about how to strengthen expert advice across the United Nations system, particularly in support of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2015. A new UN Scientific Advisory Board was established in 2014, and there have been recent calls for its remit to be expanded by the incoming UN Secretary General.
Scientific advice and evidence features prominently in recent UN initiatives, such as the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction. There are moves underway to strengthen advisory mechanisms in support of international treaties, such as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. New mechanisms for evidence-informed assessments have also been created, drawing on lessons from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), formed in 2012 and now involving 125 countries. And the assessment model is being applied elsewhere, for example, through the International Panel for Social Progress, through which social scientists aim to develop “research-based, multi-disciplinary, non-partisan, action-driven solutions” to pressing social challenges.
Yet despite these positive developments, it is easy to feel frustrated by the visible failures of evidence to influence policy in so many areas. On thorny issues like climate change, obesity, biodiversity and migration, the response to overwhelming evidence is often sluggish and incremental. Global actions require domestic policy decisions. These need to be properly informed by national advisory systems, which remain very mixed in their structure, quality and capability to influence policy.
New developments in science or novel applications of technology may provoke skepticism or resistance from a public that perceives them as allied to elite interests. And populist politicians, campaigners or social media warriors can tap into the anxieties caused by globalisation and rising inequalities, and channel these towards resentment, as we saw in the claims during the Brexit referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.
Such tensions aren’t new, but they are becoming more acute and visible, reflecting what some have called the “paradox of scientific authority”. Expert advice is being sought with growing urgency across a proliferating array of policy and public questions. At the same time, and often on the same issues, the legitimacy of evidence and expertise has rarely been so fiercely contested.
Paradox coexists with possibilities. We need to better understand what lies behind the former, and forge alliances to advance the latter. This is why the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) was set up, following an initial meeting in Auckland in 2014.
Operating under the auspices of the International Council for Science, INGSA’s membership now includes over 950 practitioners, academics, knowledge brokers and policymakers. The network’s focus is on assisting the development of effective advisory systems for bringing evidence into policy, and the individual skills and institutional capacities that these require. Through workshops, conferences and a growing catalogue of case studies and guidance, the network aims to improve the potential for evidence-informed policymaking at national and transnational levels.
At many levels of government, the ecosystem of institutions and individuals engaged in expert advice and evidence-informed policymaking is more diverse than ever before. Distinct yet overlapping communities of research, policy and practice are congregating around a core set of questions about how to improve the provision, communication, relevance and application of evidence to policymaking. Perspectives from the natural sciences and engineering are being enriched and complicated by a deeper understanding of public values, cognitive biases and political psychology from the social, political and behavioural sciences. The assumptions of those on the evidence “supply side” are increasingly tempered by pragmatic insights that come from experience on the “demand side” of policy institutions.
If we are to practice what we preach, it is also vital that we build the evidence base in this field, through analysis and evaluation of different systems. This week’s Brussels meeting coincides with the launch of a thematic collection of the open access journal Palgrave Communications, which includes new research on the theory, practice and politics of scientific advice from a range of disciplines and countries, including Canada, China, Japan, Netherlands, Nigeria, the US and UK.
The insights from this collection, and the outcomes of the Brussels meeting, will inform INGSA’s work and contribute to one of its priorities for the next year: to develop a set of principles and guidelines for effective advisory systems. Despite frustrations, obstacles and occasional setbacks, demand for scientific advice continues to grow. We need to reflect more systematically, and learn from one another, about what works, what doesn’t and why. Meetings like those taking place this week are an important step in the right direction.
Sir Peter Gluckman (@PeterGluckman) is chief science advisor to the prime minister of New Zealand and chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice (@INGSciAdvice). James Wilsdon is Chair of the Campaign for Social Science and professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, and vice-chair of INGSA. More information about this week’s INGSA summit, held in partnership with the European Commission, can be found here. The Palgrave Communications thematic collection can be accessed here.