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GeoPolicy: The importance of scientific foresight

GeoPolicy: The importance of scientific foresight

Many of the issues that society currently faces are complex and research on just one angle or area does not provide sufficient information to address the problem. These challenges are compounded when more than one region (or even the entire planet) is impacted. Many of the decisions and legislations passed by governments today will go on to impact how these issues either develop or are resolved years into the future.

How do governments ensure that the decisions they make are sustainable – that they will not only produce short-term benefits but will also go onto benefit our children and grandchildren to come?

Scientific foresight

Scientific foresight informs policymakers about future challenges and opportunities, allowing them to follow a systematic approach to determine where actions and changes in policy are required.

While this may sound simple, it is actually far from it! Foresight requires a comprehensive understanding of what the potential consequences of the decision (or lack thereof) are. This may include: the potential benefits, how severe the issue is likely to be in a business-as-usual scenario, what steps can be taken to minimise the issue, which regions or areas are more likely to be heavily impacted and what the environmental, social and economic costs are likely to be over various time scales.

The information and likely future scenarios that foresight studies provide allow policymakers to:

    • better evaluate current policy priorities
    • assess the impact of upcoming policy decisions in combination with other possible developments or challenges
    • take actions that are able to pre-emptively minimise risks or expand opportunities
    • identify new partners and create new connections (both internally and internationally)
    • anticipate new technologies and societal demands and implement policy that helps to facilitate them

One example of where foresight is particularly useful is climate change. Foresight helps policymakers to understand what the impacts of climate change will be, where they will be the most severe and what legislation can be passed to minimise the risk and long-term costs without burdening the present generation.

What sort of issues do foresight studies research?

The issues that are research in foresight studies are extremely far reaching. Below are just a few examples of themes that have been previously researched.

Just of a few of the areas considered in scientific foresight studies

 

How to get involved with foresight research?

At a European level, foresight processes are integrated with other EU scientific advice processes such as: informal expert groups, the Research, Innovation and Science Expert Group (RISE), the Horizon 2020 Programme, the EU’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM). While it is possible for scientists to become involved through each of these platforms, the most researcher-friendly option is likely to be the Horizon 2020 Programme. You can find out more about Horizon 2020 and how its projects are advertised in our July GeoPolicy blog.

If you are living outside of the EU, knowing which organisations are working on foresight studies in your area is a good start. Almost every national government undertakes some form of foresight research. Not only this, but there are also larger regional or global initiatives undertaken by international organisations, such as the UNDP and ASEAN, as well as a large number of consultancies that undertake foresight studies and develop prioritised action plans.


Why aren’t foresight studies publicised?

Actually, they are! Governments, particularly the EU Commission, love to highlight the various foresight studies that are being used to guide policy decisions because they are generally of interest to the public and demonstrate that much of the legislation enacted is based on research.  The links in the further reading section below will lead you to some of these studies.

Being a policy related blog, this post has naturally focused on the governmental and legislative use of foresight research. However, foresight can and should be used to steer both business and personal decisions. From financial investments to our education, having a greater understanding about what the future holds enables us to make more informed decisions that are more likely to have the outcome we desire! Perhaps this is just another reason to support scientific foresight and its distribution in formats more people are able to read.

Further reading 

 

GeoPolicy: A new vehicle emissions test to be introduced, say EU’s top scientists

Inspector testing vehicle emissions

Last year the European Commission appointed a panel of world leading scientists to advise on key science policy issues. In November, the panel issued their first recommendation report focusing on COvehicle emissions. The month’s GeoPolicy post takes a closer look at this high-level advisory panel and the recommendations they have published.

 

In 2015, the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) was established by the European Commission (EC) to improve research communication to policy officials. Previously, a Chief Scientific Advisor served this process, but after the position was discontinued in 2014 a crater was left in providing evidence-based policy in Europe. In response, EC President Jean-Claude Juncker, established SAM, which centres around a high-level panel of scientific experts who publish reports of topics of societal importance. These topics are chosen by the EC or suggested by the panel members themselves. SAM’s overall structure was covered in a previous GeoPolicy post entitled ‘GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers‘.

The panels’s first report, entitled ‘Closing the gap between light-duty vehicle real-world COemissions and laboratory testing’1, was commissioned in the wake of the Volkswagen NOemissions scandal in 2015. The report aimed to assess the scientific basis for improving measurements of light duty vehicle CO2 emissions, which approaches could be considered, and what additional scientific and analytical work would be needed to implement these tests.

The major findings say that developing further emissions testings, in both the laboratory and within the vehicles themselves, would significantly decrease the gap in measured levels. This test, known as the Worldwide Harmonised Light vehicles Test Procedure, will be a tougher standard for car manufacturers to adhere to and aims to be introduced across the EU in September 2017. In addition, a ban in awarding certificates to cars who have not been tested using the new method will be implemented. Finally, SAM’s panel recommend a review of the new procedure in 5 years to assess the improvements2.

SAM’s panel consists of 7 members (listed below). The geosciences are (loosely) represented by the newest panel member, Carina Keskitalo, a Professor of Political Science at the Department of Geography and Economic History at Umeå University. She researches into natural resource-use policy, in particular forestry and climate change adaptation policy. She replaced the UK Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, who served as a SAM member for one year.

High level group members:

  • Janusz Bujnicki – Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Protein Engineering, International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Warsaw (biology);
  • Pearl Dykstra – Professor of Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam (social science);
  • Elvira Fortunato – Deputy Chair – Professor, Materials Science Department of the Faculty of Science and Technology, NOVA University, Lisbon (material science);
  • Rolf-Dieter Heuer – Former Director-General of CERN (particle physics);
  • Carina Keskitalo – Professor, Department of Geography and Economic History (land-use and climate change);
  • Cédric Villani – Director, Henri Poincaré Institute, Paris (mathematics);
  • Henrik C. Wegener – Chair – Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Technical University of Denmark (epidemiology / microbiology).

The group aims to publish its second recommendation report on cybersecurity before the end of the year.

 

Sources / Additional reading

[1] – The SAM CO2 emissions report

[2] – ScienceBusiness: COtest is a clear step forward

[3] –  The Scientific Advice Mechanism

GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

Scientific research is usually verbally communicated to policy officials or through purposefully written documents. This occurs at all levels of governance (local, national, and international). This month’s GeoPolicy post takes a look at the main methods in which scientists can assist in the policy process and describes a new method adopted by the European Commission (EC) that aims to enhance science advice to policy.

Contrary to what is commonly thought, science-for-policy communication can be instigated by both scientists and policy officials (not just from the policy end). Scientists are increasingly encouraged to step out of their ‘ivory tower’ and communicate their science to the glittering world of policy. During my PhD, I presented my thesis results to civil servants at the UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change. That meeting was a result of me directly contacting the department with a summary of my work. Scientists should not feel afraid to contact relevant policy groups, although this is perhaps easier to do on the local / national scale rather than on the international level.

 

Types of policy engagement

Some of the commonly reported scientific evidence for policy methods are described below:

  1. Surveys: Government organisations may send out targeted or open questionnaires to learn stakeholders’ opinions on certain topics. This method is used for collecting larger sample sizes and when the general consensus and/or dominant views need to be known.
  2. Interviews: one-on-one meetings are commonly used for communicating science to policy officials; either by phone or in person. These provide opportunities for in-depth discussions and explanations.
  3. Discussion workshops: the term ‘workshop’ is loosely used when referring to science policy. It can describe a semi-structured meeting where no predefined agenda has been set, or the term can refer to participants systematically discussing a topic with specific aims to be achieved (Fischer al., 2013). Workshops can involve solely scientists or combine policy workers and scientists (examples of the latter at the UK Centre from Science and Policy). Workshops usually result in a written summary which can be used for policy purposes.
  4. Seminars: experts give talks on their research for interested policy officials to attend and ask questions afterwards. For more tips on ways to communicate science to policy officials please read May’s GeoPolicy post.
  5. Policy briefings: may refer to a several types of written document. They are usually written after a workshop or to summarise scientific literature. Briefings are usually written by so-called bridging organisations, which work at the science-policy interface. These documents can be relatively brief, e.g., the American Geophysical Union (AGU) have published several ‘factsheets’ on different Earth-science topics, or more detailed, e.g., the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) regularly publishes ‘POSTnotes’.
  6. Reports: these are far longer documents which review the current scientific understanding. The IPCC reports are key examples of this, but it should be noted that any long report intended for wider-audiences should always contact a short summary for policymakers as they almost certainly do not possess the time to read full reports.
  7. The Delphi method: this less-commonly known practice combines both individual and group work and is supposed to reduce biases that can occur from open discussion platforms. Experts answer questions posed by policy workers in rounds. In between each round an anonymous summary of the opinions is presented to the participants, who are then asked if their opinions have changed. The resulting decisions can then draft a policy briefing.
  8. Pairing schemes: an alternative method used to bridge the science policy gap. This is a relatively new initiative but examples have occurred on the national (Royal Society and MPs paired together in the UK) and international level (EU MEPs paired with European-based scientists). These schemes involve an introductory event at the place of governance, which include seminars and discussions. Bilateral meetings are then organised at the Scientists’ institutions. These initiatives aim to help participants on both sides appreciate the different working conditions they experience. The EU-wide pairing scheme encourages pairs to work together producing a science policy event at a later date. This is still to be determined as the initial pairing only occurred in January.

 

Recruiting scientists

Different pathways exist for scientists to partake in these meetings. These include:

More commonly, scientists are contacted through the policy organisation’s extended personal network. This has been criticised as it can restrict the breadth of scientific evidence reaching policy, as well as it being not transparent. Under EC President Jean-Claude Junker, a Scientific Advice Mechanism has been defined, in which a more transparent framework for science advice to policy has been set out.

 

What is the Science Advice Mechanism? (SAM)

The Science Advice mechanism. Slide taken from presentation entitled “A new mechanism for independent scientific advice in the European Commission” available on the EC Website.

The Science Advice mechanism. Slide taken from presentation entitled “A new mechanism for independent scientific advice in the European Commission” available on the EC Website.

 

This mechanism aims to supply the EC with broad and representative scientific in a structured and transparent manner. The centre-point to this is the formation of a high level scientific group which will work closely with the EC services. This panel comprises seven members “with an outstanding level of expertise and who collectively cover a wide range of scientific fields and expertise relevant for EU policy making”. This panel provides a close working relationship with learned societies and the wider scientific community within the EU. Since its initiation is 2015 the panel has met twice to discuss formalising this mechanism further. The minutes for the meetings are publically available here. More information about SAM is available in the EPRS policy briefing ‘Scientific advice for policy-makers in the European Union’.

Previously, the EU had appointed a Chief Scientific Advisor, however this role was discontinued after 3 years as it was considered too dependent on one individual’s experience. A panel is thought to provide a broader range of scientific advice.