Leaders of the World’s Science Organizations Meet to Discuss How to Strengthen Evidence-Based Policy Making

CHICAGO - More than 30 top representatives from science organizations around the world convened at the AAAS Annual Meeting to explore how international scientific knowledge can be fed more effectively into the formation of national and global policies.

The 14 February meeting was an outgrowth of a recently forged, multilateral partnership among five key science societies: AAAS, the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), Euroscience and the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA). One of the network's goals is to foster a connected series of conversations based on areas of common interest, and each of the associations is devoting part of its annual meeting to these discussions.

The topic for the Chicago conversation was evidence-based policy making, or, as AAAS Chief Executive Officer and Science publisher Alan I. Leshner put it, "How can we as a global scientific community do a fundamentally better job of bringing together global expertise to inform national and global science polices?"

The discussion was conducted under Chatham House Rule, which is intended to encourage a frank exchange of ideas by assuring that participants will not be identified or quoted. The meeting drew leaders from science organizations across the globe, including those in Canada, China, Japan, India, Poland, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, United States, the United Kingdom and others whose reach encompasses Africa and the European Union.

Several participants recommended having a body of science advisors who can summarize for lawmakers the most up-to-date scientific evidence on issues including climate change, water use and genetically modified crops. They suggested several common principles that apply to both well-established advisory groups, such as those in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, and to groups just getting off the ground.

First, such science advisors must be considered credible. In some countries, including the United States, policy makers may regard science advice from outside the country with suspicion, one participant noted. Advisory bodies could establish credibility by focusing first on areas where scientists are generally in agreement, another participant suggested, noting that the European Union draws its experts from all 28 member states and that these experts do not always speak with a single voice.

The advisory body must also be independent, operating free of political or corporate influences. And, it should integrate itself into the policy-making culture, seeking to engage its political counterparts rather than criticize them. Simply trying to train lawmakers to think like scientists will not work, Leshner noted.

Flipping the discussion in the opposite direction, several speakers noted that while policy makers need high-quality scientific information to address 21 st century challenges, scientists also need effective policies that support the scientific enterprise. This is especially true in Africa and other regions that are just starting to build their scientific capacity, they said.

One of the more difficult questions the group wrestled with was whether scientific advice must be specific to individual countries or whether it could be more broadly applied across regions or even globally. In regions like Africa, where many countries lack any sort of scientific advising system, building such a system country by country would be too inefficient at this stage, one speaker said. He suggested instead that the international community help develop a single hub of expertise with branches across the continent, which would be devoted to working with lawmakers and training African scientists to do this work.

In Japan, where some participants cited a wide gulf between the scientific and policy communities as one of the key challenges, scientific advice that originated from outside Japan might be acceptable as long as a regional discussion was also taking place inside the country, another said.

Ultimately, many participants acknowledged, providing advice will be ineffective if that advice is not also implemented. Above all, scientific advice must be both "usable and used," Leshner said, as heads nodded around the room.