The Science of Science Advice – Policy-Making Explained to Scientists (9)

(January 11th, 2016) 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’.

Stimulated by the 20 point list of “Interpretive Scientific Skills” for policy-makers (see part 7 and part 8 of this series), Chris Tyler, director of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (“Parliament's in-house source of independent, balanced and accessible analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology”), published a list of  the “Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making”.

Tyler approved of their list for dealing in a “constructive way” with many of the challenges that scientists report when “engaging” with policy-makers, but complained that, all too often, scientists don’t understand what policy-makers do and the problems that they face. “When scientists moan about how little politicians know about science, I usually get annoyed. Such grouching is almost always counterproductive and more often than not betrays how little scientists know about the UK's governance
structures, processes, culture and history.”

He said that all too often scientists blame politicians for failures when science meets policy-making “when in truth the science community needs to do much more to engage productively with the people who actually make policy.”

Therefore, Tyler and his fellow science advisers at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology came up with their list of 20 points that they think scientists should know about policy. He hopes it will stimulate debate, “and if anyone were to print it out and stick it on their wall or pass it round their labs, it probably wouldn't do any harm.”

Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making:

1. Making policy is really difficult
2. No policy will ever be perfect
3. Policy makers can be expert too
4. Policy makers are not a homogenous group
5. Policy makers are people too
6. Policy decisions are subject to extensive scrutiny
7. Starting policies from scratch is very rarely an option
8. There is more to policy than scientific evidence
9. Economics and law are top dogs in policy advice
10. Public opinion matters
11. Policy makers do understand uncertainty
12. Parliament and government are different
13. Policy and politics are not the same thing
14. The UK has a brilliant science advisory system
15. Policy and science operate on different timescales
16. There is no such thing as a policy cycle
17. The art of making policy is a developing science
18. “Science policy” isn't a thing
19. Policy makers aren't interested in science per se
20. “We need more research” is the wrong answer

Tyler provided an explanatory paragraph for each point. He said that most common science “rants” about policy-making include flippant comments about policy decisions being straightforward – “I've heard people say that it is 'obvious' that the UK should decriminalise drugs; stimulate the economy by doubling the science budget; reform our energy economy by investing extensively in nuclear. Such decisions are not straightforward at all.” Because public policy is always more complex than it seems, involving a wide range of inputs, complicated interactions with other policies, and varied and unpredictable outcomes. “Simple solutions to complex problems are rarer than most people think.” In fact, whatever the decision, the effects of policy are almost always uneven.

Policy-makers and expertise

Scientists often consider themselves as the “experts” who engage with policy makers, but Tyler says many policy-makers are experts too – “if you are a scientist talking to a policy maker, don't assume that you are the only expert in the room”. Furthermore, “policy-maker” is at least as broad a term as “researcher”. It includes civil servants ranging from senior to junior, generalist to specialist, and to those in connected agencies and regional government; it includes politicians in government and opposition; and then there are all the people who might not directly make the decisions, but as advisers can strongly influence them.

Nevertheless, he says we must recognise that policy-makers are people who, “despite extensive training and the best of intentions”, will sometimes make bad decisions and get things wrong. They may also, like scientists, choose to act in their own interest
“which is why policy is regulated by professional guidelines, a variety of checks and balances, and scrutiny that comes from a wide range of institutions and angles”.

Policy usually builds on the existing imperfect situation

Tyler says that a former government minister once told him that, on taking office, he decided to meet with a number of academics to seek advice on how to fix his particular policy domain “which was broken”. He found the experience to be deeply frustrating because everyone he met said: well, if you were designing the system from scratch, this is what it should look like. “But he wasn't; he needed solutions that could evolve from within the existing ecosystem.” Policies are not made in isolation. First there is a starting point in current policy, and there are usually some complex interactions between policies at different regional scales: local, national and international.

Law, economics, politics and public opinion are all important factors – “scientific evidence is only part of the picture that a policy-maker has to consider”. When it comes to advice sought by policy-makers, economics and law are “top dogs”. Scientific evidence comes further down the pecking order. “Whether or not this is the best way to make policy is not the point, it is just a statement of how things work in practice.” Many of the most important public policy decisions are made by people who were directly elected, and most of the rest are taken by people who work for them. “We live in a democracy and public opinion is a critical component of the policy process.”

“It is commonly asserted by scientists that policy makers prefer to be given information that is certain, and I have even heard some say that policy-makers don't understand uncertainty.” Tyler disputes this. He says that, on the contrary, politicians are surrounded by and constantly make formal and informal assessments of uncertainty and civil servants are expert at drawing up policy options with incomplete information. However, policy-makers don’t like information that has so many “caveats” that it is useless.

Policy versus Politics

He says scientists should be clearer about the distinction between policy and politics. Policy is mostly about the design and implementation of a particular intervention. This is mostly determined by government - the executive. On the other hand, politics is about how the decision was made. This involves the legislature – the elected parliament – that debates public issues, makes laws and scrutinises government. For example, in the European Union, the executive is the European Commission and the legislature is the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.

When policy makers say that they need information soon, they mean within days or weeks, not months. “This is not a flaw of the system; it is the way it is.” If scientists want to engage with policy they need to be able to work to the policy-makers’ schedule. Asking policy makers to work to a slower timetable will result in them going elsewhere for advice. “And make your advice concise.” Policy decisions usually need to be made pretty quickly, and asking for more time and money to conduct research is unlikely to go down well. “Policy-makers may exhibit frustration with researchers who are unable to offer an opinion without first obtaining funding for a multi-year research programme.”

When policy makers talk about “science policy”, they are usually talking about policies for things like research funding, universities and innovation policy. Tyler says researchers also seem to think that “science policy” covers the use of research evidence to help deliver better policies in a wide range of areas. “I find it helps to distinguish between ‘policy for science’ on the one hand, and ‘science for policy’ on the other.”

He also notes that policy makers are not interested in “philosophical conversations” such as “what constitutes evidence” or “the difference between science advice, social science advice and engineering advice”. Policy-makers care about research evidence only insofar as it helps them to make better decisions.

Is UK system of science advice really better?
However, in his point 14, Tyler makes an unscientific claim when he boasts that “the UK is leading the world with its science advisory system.” His only evidence for this appears to be the multiplication in the number of UK civil servants with ‘science adviser’ in their job description - “Every government department has (in theory) a chief scientific adviser (CSA) reporting to his or her own private secretary (the top departmental civil servant) and to the government chief scientific adviser, who reports directly to the prime minister. In parliament, we have the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and in addition science advisers in the library research services and select committee offices.”

Yet the UK’s CSA model is only one of several used to provide science advice to governments. Although it has been adopted by some other countries (e.g. Australia and New Zealand), several that experimented with CSAs have since moved to other forms of science advice (e.g. Canada and the Czech Republic). The European Commission also had an unfortunate experience with the CSA model and recently replaced it with a new Science Advice Mechanism. In fact, Tyler presents no evidence to show why the UK’s CSA model might be considered better than those in other countries. Furthermore, unlike Tyler, the recently-created International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) says it “does not seek to endorse any particular form or structure of science advice as being superior to another”.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/Gajus

Last Changes: 05.02.2016