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Conference Navigates Gap Between Science and Government



Rush Holt chaired a panel discussion on providing science advice in emergencies at the conference in Brussels | European Commission 2016

More than 600 professionals from the worlds of science and politics converged in Brussels late last month to mine internationally accumulated expertise on how best to connect scientific evidence with government decision-making. Infectious disease outbreaks, the use of genetically modified crops, climate change and other pressing issues will all require the input of scientists, speakers said. 

“We understand now that there is no societal issue in which social and natural sciences do not have an important role to play,” Sir Peter Gluckman, chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), told the conference participants, who represented 72 different countries. In the opening session, Gluckman, who is the chief science adviser to the prime minister of New Zealand, defined the challenge of learning how best to “broker” the increasingly complicated evidence that science produces to meet the demands of government and society. 

Allowing the exchange of best-practice principles among scientists who have provided science advice at the top levels of government around the world, the September 29-30 conference, organized by INGSA in partnership with the European Commission, also provided an intensive course applicable to all scientists and engineers who recognize a need to engage with decision-makers. 

“The challenge of providing science advice that is relevant to public issues is the same for official science advisers or for any scientist performing his civic duty,” said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt, who attended the event. “Clarity in explaining the technical components of an issue is only a part of what the adviser must keep in mind.” 

Many of the speakers at the conference emphasized a need for researchers to immediately acknowledge that the scientific evidence they provide to government at any level — although more in demand than ever before — is just one of the ingredients that go into the messy process of policy-making. Holt, who is a physicist and served in Congress for 16 years, said scientists providing advice to government sometimes often fail to take into account the competing interests faced by elected officials serving their constituencies. 



Dame Helen Wallace | European Commission 2016

The adviser must put the advice within the context of the political and ethical considerations of the issue and must know when exactly the advice is needed. For policymakers, said political scientist Dame Helen Wallace, “very often it’s not what you want to do, it’s whether you can do it, whether you can implement it, whether it will be behaviorally acceptable, whether it will be ethically acceptable.” Wallace is a member of Academia Europaea and a fellow of the British Academy. 

Mark Ferguson, who is the chief scientific adviser to the Government of Ireland, said he asks the politicians he serves, “What is it that you are trying to achieve, and how can science help you?” 

In addition to recognizing the multiple challenges facing politicians, scientists generally need a desire to work across disciplines and to integrate the social sciences with the natural sciences in order to provide information that can affect important decisions. This is especially true at a time when whole sectors of society are rejecting experts and evidence in favor of political ideology, as is happening in the United States with regard to acknowledging climate change. 

We need the social sciences “to understand why social change is not happening at the pace or in the direction we would like it to, despite all of the efforts that have been made to date,” said Martin Porter, who serves the European Climate Foundation as the executive director for industrial innovation and European Union affairs. By integrating social science research “with the world of natural science, perspectives open up for more rapid change.” 

Social scientists at the conference recommended communicating with stakeholders to increase the applicability of scientific evidence in policy-making, as well as establishing a dialogue with citizens who are not stakeholders but who make up a representative sample of a population, both to sound them out on their views and to help inform them about the technical, social and ethical aspects of a certain issue and the best corresponding scientific evidence. Such dialogue, said Heather Douglas, who is the Waterloo chair in science and society at the University of Waterloo, can help both scientists and politicians to understand citizens’ concerns. 

“You need to know what people care about,” said Douglas, “what risks they’ll accept, which are not acceptable, and why.” 

Pushing public and stakeholder involvement a step further, conference experts recommended “citizen science” and “co-production” of scientific research, referring to it as a means of reaching out to citizens experiencing an overload of digitally delivered information — much of which is misleading — and reestablishing the public’s trust in scientific evidence. 

An excellent example of such participatory research is outlined in a report by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Douglas pointed out. An extremely contentious issue was the report’s focus: the effect on monarch butterflies of a variety of corn bred to be insect resistant by genetically engineering it to produce a toxin derived from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, which in its natural form is used as a bio-pesticide by organic and conventional farmers. Scientists from academia, government, industry and environmental groups worked together to plan the experiments for answering the question of whether the genetically modified corn posed a risk. Ultimately, virtually all of the participants accepted that any acute threat was negligible, especially compared to other threats such as conventional pesticides. 

Panelists throughout the conference also emphasized transparency about how scientific results were derived and how the work was funded as crucial to policy-makers. 

Mady Delvaux-Stehres, a member of the European Parliament who has often sought the advice of scientists, said, “Policy-makers know research is expensive, so they want to know who’s financing it. Otherwise, they are suspicious.”

Amid brand-new and time-tested ideas for fostering the connection between science and government, the longstanding AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships won praise for their effectiveness during a presentation by UNESCO Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences Flavia Schlegel. The 43-year-old program, which places hundreds of scientists and engineers in U.S. government offices every year, is being viewed as a model for state and federal governments to consider. 

After acknowledgment by many speakers of the challenges of presenting increasingly complex scientific evidence to constrained policy-makers and a somewhat dismissive public, David Mair, head of the Geographic Coordination Unit of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, issued a battle cry. 

“Evidence-informed policy is not axiomatic. It is not a requirement of any scientific or natural law. It is a value, and it needs to be fought for,” he said. “I hope one of the positive things we take out of this conference is that there is a community of people prepared to fight.”

This article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the October 28, 2016, edition of Science.

[Credit for associated image: European Commission 2016]