The Science of Science Advice - Selecting the Advisors (4)

(September 18th, 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’.

A central element in ensuring the rigour and legitimacy of scientific advice is selecting the “right” experts. Who will provide the answers? This second phase of the advisory process can pose major problems and undermine the entire process. On the one hand, we need to believe that the chosen scientists/technical experts are sufficiently qualified to provide good, reasoned advice. On the other, at the heart of the science debates, there must be a sense that the advice is firmly based upon fair and impartial judgements. As the OECD note – “On the whole, public trust in science remains high but engaged citizens must have confidence in the process by which scientific advisers are selected to address issues that concern them, if this trust is to be maintained.”

Ideally, the body of experts involved in providing scientific advice should have demonstrated capabilities and expertise covering all the areas related to the issue at hand. “They also should be open to expert opinions coming from outside their selected group, recognising that relevant expertise is often available outside established academic structures.” In its “check-list” for science advice, the report notes that involving the “relevant actors” should include consideration of “whether and how to engage non-scientific experts and/or civil society stakeholders in framing and/or generating the advice.”

However, it appears that selecting the “right” experts for scientific advice is becoming a more and more difficult task. This is due both to the complexity of the issues involved and to the ever-present threat posed by ‘conflicts of interest,’ whether financial or non-financial.

Avoiding conflicts of interest

As the interaction between scientific research and business and the public sector has grown, concerns about conflicts of interest have come to the fore. In some highly specialised areas this is compounded by the reality that there may be only a small number of individuals with sufficient expertise to provide advice. Transparent procedures for the selection of experts should include specific and clear provisions on declaring and managing potential conflicts of interest. “Governments and the scientific community need to make sustained efforts both to improve the mechanisms for the selection of experts and to guarantee a level of openness to outside opinions. Lack of attention to this at the outset can ultimately undermine even the best scientific advice” (a good analysis of this problem is presented in ‘Unhappy meal. The European Food Safety Authority's independence problem’; Lab Times has discussed many other examples of ‘conflicts of interest’ in research and public regulation in two recent articles: “Conflicts of Interest (1): Clandestine connections. Opening public research to industrial sponsorship has brought us multiple problems” and “Conflicts of Interest (2): Undermined authorities. Regulatory capture of public science”.

Ensuring the independence of scientific advisers

For the OECD, it is the “independence of academia” that serves as the cornerstone of sound and reliable scientific research and thus of scientific advice. Nevertheless, the impartiality of scientists can come under pressure in cases where the stakes are high (for example, in financial terms) - when there is a divisive political debate or disagreement among stakeholders. In such circumstances, governments may push for clear-cut advice that cannot be scientifically justified. “As a general rule, governments should ensure the autonomy of scientific advisers, and experts should not be excluded from advisory processes just because their views are not in accord with government policies. Scientific advice should be based on the best available science.”

However, the organisations or institutions that provide the scientific advice also have to ensure that the scientists they are consulting will provide policy makers with advice “from a fair, objective and apolitical standpoint.” It is noted that “particular vigilance is required when the framing of the question entails a negotiation process between the government and the advisers.” As mentioned above, if the initial question is posed with a very narrow optic, it can drastically restrict the scope of the resulting formal advice. This may give the false impression that government has fully investigated a problem when, in reality, it has only considered a small part of the overall issue.
Ensuring the necessary independence and autonomy of science advice can be even more complicated in international structures. In the IPCC assessments (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), hundreds of experts are involved on a voluntary basis, but lead authors are usually nominated from among experts proposed by governments. Similarly, most experts at the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) are nominated by governments. Inevitably, this can lead to accusations of political bias in the advisory process. To minimise such criticisms, procedures for consultation with non-governmental experts and scientific peer-review have been established. 

On the other hand, in those international structures that do not have experts nominated by governments, the resulting advice from these scientific institutions may be perceived as reflecting their own preferences and networks. “For example, advice on complex global issues should ideally have expert input from developing countries. However, finding high-level experts, who have the time and resources to participate in international advisory processes, from some of these countries, can be difficult.”

Once the advisors have been found, the next phase in the advisory process entails the actual production of the advice, as discussed in the next part.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/Gajus

Last Changes: 12.01.2015