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Science and policymaking: reflections from a global meeting

Posted by on October 18, 2016

By Alessandro Allegra, doctoral candidate in science and technology studies, UCL

Over the last two days of September 600 scientists, policymakers, and knowledge brokers from all over the world gathered in Brussels to discuss how to improve dialogue between science and policymaking.

The global conference, organised by the European Commission and the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), started from a very simple premise: as science and technology inform our understanding of the world, and permeate all aspects of our lives, how do we ensure they are best embedded into effective policymaking?

Although no simple and straightforward answer to this questions exists, several important points were made during the two days of discussion that can contribute to a better understanding of the process of scientific advice to policymaking. Here I discuss a few that I found particularly interesting.

The social and political context of scientific advice

As remarked in the opening of the conference, scientific advisors are often called in to deal with what is referred to as post-normal science, situations where facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high, and decisions urgent.

Science does not exist in a social and political vacuum, and even less so does the process through which it informs policymaking. In a democratic setting, facts alone cannot determine policy decisions. As noted by the EU Commissioner for Research Carlos Moedas, the role of scientific advisors is not to provide answers, but to provide evidence and options and open up the process through which those are obtained.

Scientific advisors as brokers and storytellers

Scientific advisors operate within a complex ecosystem of politicians, public and private institutions, civil society, media and public debate. As emphasised by Sir Peter Gluckman, New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor and Chair of INGSA, “We are in the business of evidence brokerage, between science, policy & society.” According to Sir Peter, the most important skill for a scientific advisor is to be able maintain the trust of all those involved in the process, including of course scientists themselves.

Scientific advisors work across different communities, each with its own individual thought style and language, and with different ways of making sense of the world. Although talking about data and facts might be the preferred mode of sense-making for scientists engaged in their research, this requires translation to be fruitfully used in a policy setting. As one of the conference participants put it: “Don’t ask a Minister if they want science advice, ask her/him if they want to know what works!”

Socially, the way we make sense of the world we live in, and the way we describe it to others, is through narratives, not data points. Story-telling and story-listening therefore emerged as paramount to an effective knowledge brokerage process.

The role of social and human sciences

Given the recognition of this social and narrative dimension of the scientific advisory process, it should come as no surprise that the need to go beyond the natural sciences to include insight from social sciences and humanities was raised by many participants and met with broad support.

As an aspiring social scientists studying the issue, I embrace the view taken by some of the conference organisers that scientific advice to policymaking is itself a social process, as outlined above, and therefore aptly subject to critical investigation by the social and human sciences. These disciplines have an important role to play in providing useful insight and critical reflection on the outcomes and dynamics of the process, and suggesting how to improve it. Perhaps a new science of science advice could pave the way to answering the opening question.

Read more about Royal Society of Biology’s work in science policy.

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