The Science of Science Advice - The Advisory Question (3)

(September 15th, 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 first parts of this series (part 1 and part 2) looked at the initiative to found a new International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) - a “forum for policymakers, practitioners, academies, and academics to share experience, build capacity and develop theoretical and practical approaches to the use of scientific evidence in informing policy at all levels of government”. But what does the science advisory process actually involve? In March 2015, the Global Science Forum of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) published its report on ‘Scientific Advice for Policy Making’. This looked at “the role and responsibility of expert bodies and individual scientists” in providing science advice and explored how the advice was generated in the first place – What is the science advisory process?

The OECD study group identified four distinct phases in the process of providing scientific advice for policy-making:
1. Framing the question;
2. Selecting the advisors;
3. Producing the advice; and
4. Communicating and using the advice.
They also recommended the addition of a fifth phase, after the advisory process has been completed – Assessing the impact of the advice that has been given.
Framing of the question – What is the question?

The first phase involves deciding what the question is. This is not as easy as it sounds. What is, or are, the questions posed by governments that require scientific answers?
Furthermore, although “framing” an assignment for scientific advice can define the scope of the question to be addressed, it may be approached at different levels of complexity.

For example, what might happen if there was a new outbreak of ‘mad cow’ disease? This could lead to relatively straightforward science questions such as what causes ‘mad cow’ disease (otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) and what we can do to stop it spreading, like destroying infected cattle or limiting the risk of a spread of BSE to humans by preventing the incorporation of ‘risky’ body parts (including cattle brains and spinal cords) from entering the food chain. However, these primary questions can quickly lead into a set of other issues relating to modern agricultural practices – did BSE arise as a result of “innovative” production processes in the agricultural sector? Should there be reforms in animal health care, food processing and transport, etc.?

The OECD report optimistically states that policy-makers will, “sooner or later, need to consider all of these questions and issues to decide, for example, whether there is a case for changing to a different food production system altogether.” The assumption is that the scientific experts will be asked by governments to answer the initial risk-assessment questions, but that this is likely to generate a larger social and policy debate concerning a wider set of issues.

Yet, the framing of an apparently straightforward technical question can become very difficult. They point to the example of ‘fracking’ (shale gas drilling) and how the questions calling for risk assessment are posed differently by different interest groups. “As various case studies from the US and the Netherlands show, different stakeholders frame the questions in different ways, depending on their particular interests and perspectives. These can be wide ranging - from home owners being concerned for their property value, to energy companies worried about their profit, to environmentalists being alarmed about potential water pollution.” Other common examples include questions about the potential health and environmental risks of drugs, pesticides and common chemicals – if the initial scientific question is framed too narrowly, the scope of any resulting regulatory advice may also be heavily restricted.

So, who defines the questions – the policymakers, ‘public opinion’, interest groups, scientists themselves? “For science to contribute effectively to this multi-stakeholder debate requires the contribution of multiple disciplines and these need to be brought together early on in framing the questions to be addressed.”

Recognising the advantages of been well-informed “early on”, there has been a tendency to ask scientists to be on the lookout for questions that may need answering in the near future, i.e. scientists should be aware of potential consequences and problems that they may recognise based on their research knowledge and communications. In effect, “scientists may be better placed than policymakers to identify that an important new question exists.”

Monitoring of new scientific and technological developments, including via formalised ‘foresight’ processes (e.g. the UK Foresight projects), can be an effective way to identify new questions that policymakers should be asking. International bodies such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the Scientific Advisory Board of the United Nations Secretary-General have initial “scoping” group meetings with government representatives and the heads of UN agencies to define the objectives of the advisory body on specific issues. 

Deciding upon the ‘right’ question is a good start, but finding the ‘right’ advisors to answer it presents its own problems. The next part looks at the difficulties in selecting competent scientists who will give open and independent advice.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/Gajus

Last Changes: 12.01.2015