The Science of Science Advice - Models of Science Advice (1)

(July 21st, 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 importance of understanding and using science for public policy-making has long been recognised, but recent years have seen a growing debate over how this is best achieved.

During the last year there was a highly-mediatised protest about the scrapping of the post of Chief Scientific Adviser at the European Commission. This was the conclusion of a 3 year experiment in science advice featuring UK biologist, Anne Glover (described in more detail in LT 04/2015). However, this incident has also provoked a lot of questions about the nature of science advice to governments in general. For example, the use of a top scientist to advise the highest levels of government – a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) - is the model preferred in the UK, but instead of a single CSA, the European Commission has now decided that it will experiment with a panel of seven science advisers

But what does this effectively mean in terms of public science advice and how does it compare to similar approaches internationally? There are many sources of information about scientific research and knowledge but who decides upon its relative importance for making public policy? What is appropriate and when is it relevant? And can we guarantee that the preferred advice is independent, transparent, unbiased, and reliable?

At the end of August 2014, scientists and policymakers from forty-eight countries gathered in Auckland, New Zealand to debate “Science advice to governments: diverse systems, common challenges” (Briefing paper; Synthesis Report). This was the largest international science advice meeting ever held, bringing together science advisers, advisory bodies and academic experts. It looked at the interface between scientists and policy-makers, and the many other factors that must be taken into account besides the interpretation of scientific evidence when formulating policy.

It also recognised that there were many ways of obtaining and providing scientific advice and that no-one has yet found an optimal solution. Various models of Science Advice to government exist. In the introduction to the Auckland conference, four distinct models were identified:

Chief Scientific Adviser attached to a Prime Minister/President’s office.
As its name suggests, this is a single person who is charged with providing direct advice to the highest levels of government on scientific and technological matters. The US appointed its first presidential science adviser in 1957 and the UK appointed its first cross-government Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in 1964. Elsewhere, CSAs exist in Australia, India, Ireland, Malaysia, and New Zealand. However, some countries have already abandoned this approach – Canada in 2008, the Czech Republic in 2014, and the EC’s CSA experiment only lasted from 2012-2014. Meanwhile in Ireland, the CSA post was severely diminished in 2012 when it was controversially added to the responsibilities of the head of the main funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland. 

Advisory councils - many countries have a high-level council for science (or science and innovation) policy. Members typically include senior scientists, alongside representatives of industry, higher education and civil society. Examples include Japan’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), the UK’s Council on Science and Technology, and the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Advisory committees - most governments also rely on an array of specialised scientific and expert committees, which can address detailed technical and regulatory issues in areas such as health, environment and food safety. For example, the US and Japan have hundreds of such committees; the UK has over seventy. This category also includes research-based organisations, ranging from policy-oriented think tanks to intermediary agencies. For example, in the EU, there are the regulatory agencies, notably the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), European Medicines Agency (EMA), European Environment Agency (EEA), European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). 

Learned societies, Academies, and Networks - A growing number of national scientific academies and foundations are active in science policy, and are an important source of scientific advice in countries such as Canada, China, Germany, the Netherlands, the US (National Academy of Science) and the UK (Royal Society). Similarly, networks of universities and research institutes are a valuable source of science advice.

However, none of these structures is considered to be a “perfect” solution. Therefore, governments often rely on several of them in combination to create a broad range of expertise around policy processes. Nevertheless, common challenges persist across all systems – How is the independence of science advice protected while ensuring that it is listened to? How can a trusted relationship between science advisers and policymakers be developed that maintains transparency and accountability in the eyes of the public and the science community alike? Finally, how can we be sure that science advice is of the highest quality, accurately representing the state of current scientific knowledge and understanding?

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/Gajus

Last Changes: 09.03.2015