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GeoPolicy: Living in a post-factual society and why it’s more important than ever for scientists to engage

GeoPolicy: Living in a post-factual society and why it’s more important than ever for scientists to engage

Last week, the EGU Science Policy Fellow packed her bags and flew to Brussels. Now this wasn’t to sample some of the fine beers Belgium has to offer, but to attend the 2nd International Network on Government Science Advice (INGSA) Conference. This conference, co-organised by INGSA and the European Commission, aimed to discuss the major principles needed for effective science advice to governments, focusing predominantly on the European scale. This month’s GeoPolicy post looks at the main themes and take home messages discussed at the conference.

 

A post-factual society?

Commissioner Carlos Moedas, in his opening address, described science validity as being under attack from so-called ‘post factual politics’. Events like the UK referendum decision to leave the EU is an example of this, but many others exist throughout Europe and the world: 41% of the French population now believe vaccines are unsafe.

Part of the reason for this shift in distrust towards expert advice is the rapid rise of non-traditional media platforms. More than ever the public are exposed to information from all angles and across multiple platforms. These platforms can spread misinformation (whether willingly or by accident) and therefore the ‘facts’ by themselves may no longer assumed to be correct.

Moedas believes that a more transparent and open approach to science advice can help increase public trust. He stated that people can understand the answers if they understand the process. Then, the public can more accurately judge the facts from the fiction.

 

So why should we engage?

Science advice to policy is often considered a two-way interaction, between the scientists and the policy makers, however the public are vital in this relationship. Scientists need to engage with both, not just because it furthers their research impact, but also it helps ensure a future for their science. Scientists must involve themselves with correcting this dangerous shift towards ignoring the facts. Democratically elected representatives will act on what are the public’s interests (for fear of not being re-elected if nothing else). So scientists need to make sure their work is communicated effectively and accurately to the public. When the public cares, so do the politicians. Although this is selfish reasoning, a scientist needs to ensure the public cares about their research, otherwise funding may be reallocated to other areas of public interest.

Additionally, the positives of effective science advice to policy are plentiful: capacity building, increased sustainability, society can become safer, the economy improves etc. In the EU, ultimate policy decisions are made by member states who are predominantly diplomats, not scientists. Therefore, effective science advice mechanisms to ensure policy makers learn about science are needed. However, this this is no easy task.

 

No one size fits all

Multiple approaches to science advice exist across the EU and the world, e.g., chief scientific advisors, national academies, third party organisations, in-house organisations, advisory boards / mechanisms. Several presentations from this conference showed that each situation requires tailoring; no one mechanism will work in every situation and not all mechanisms will work in each situation.

More concrete science-policy mapping is needed to better understand these different mechanisms and to help outside institutions comprehend how they might contribute.

 

The EU’s Scientific Advice Mechanism

A new Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) has been created to improve science advice transparency within the European Commission. SAM was described in a previous GeoPolicy post, but essentially it comprises a seven-member panel of scientific experts who work closely with the Commission and EU science academies to study scientific topics of societal interest. The network of scientific academies, known as SAPEA, can call upon external experts to contribute to the topics of focus. Currently three topics have been identified: Cybersecurity, Light duty vehicle real-drive CO2 emissions, and Glyphosate.

SAM is in its early stages, being established only a year. Needless to say, the science-policy world is observing its progress and performance with eager eyes.

 

Tips for communicating to each other

Both scientists and policy workers need better training at understanding the different languages each group speaks. Several tips / suggestions mentioned during the conference are listed below.

For scientists:

“There is an increasing pressure on scientists to deliver and they are now subject to closer public scrutiny. Therefore, scientists cannot take their authority for granted, they need to earn it, especially in polarising situations where public opinion is split” Pearl Dykstra (SAM panel member)

  • Less is more (when explaining science). Can you explain your science in 140 characters? Or pitch your research during a quick conversation in a lift? If so, this gets you a 20 minute meeting with a commissioner / MEP etc.
  • “Scientists should put themselves in shoes of policy makers more often. They need to address societal needs: there is no shortage of these” (Tibor Navaracsics, DG Education, Culture, Youth and Sport).
  • Try to understand the constraints of democracy. Science is only one factor that is considered during policy making.
  • The job of scientists is to explain what is, not what ought to be. Politicians will advocate, scientists must give the facts on which to base advocacy. Both sides need to be aware of their own biases.
  • Engage with both politicians and the public to increase trust.
  • Timing is essential. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) ensures their science advice is given when most needed. For example, disaster response requires warnings / reports / impact maps to be published as soon as possible, the JRC issues these within 2-3 hours.

 

Tips for policy workers:

  • Anticipate / expect what researchers need (policy-for-science) for them to do effective research.
  • Decrease bias, policy workers need to be open to their need for advice. “We need politicians to trust the science process even if they don’t like the results” (Bernhard Url, European Food Safety Authority).
  • Champion evidence-based policy making as we cannot afford policy mistakes. This can be hard, as it may seem counter intuitive at times.

“Both sides need to create space and time for the science policy dialogue” Yoko Harayama (Cabinet Office for Japan)

 

What if we fail?

There are many challenges with providing effective mechanisms for science advice to policy. Saruto Ohtake (Cabinet Office for Japan) gave a poignant talk about what the effects can be when this relationship fails.

The 2011 Japanese earthquake, which induced a tsunami and the shutdown of the Fukishima nuclear power plant, killed over 10,000 people. Scientific research was not communicated quickly enough and policy workers failed to ask for advice.

The results of this failure were catastrophic and subsequently, public trust in science dropped 10-20%. Effort on both sides is now needed to restore public trust and to ensure similar events never happen again.

This talk highlighted another reason for why scientists and policy officials need to have an effective and trusted relationship with each other and the public.

Although the conference focused more on the challenges at hand, rather than implementing potential solutions, it still provided much discussion and food-for-thought. Luckily, these topics could be mulled over after the conference with a refreshing blond Belgium beer.

Additional Reading

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions

GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

Dealing with post normal science and post truth politics

Science and Policy Making: towards a new dialogue website

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.