Ways to wisdom

In today’s blog post I would like to discuss the different institutional forms in which science advice can be delivered. The OECD report “Scientific Advice for Policy Making – The role and responsibility of expert bodies and individual scientists”, published in April 2015, distinguishes four different types of science advisers:

  • Science policy advisory committees or councils
  • Permanent or ad-hoc scientific/technical advisory structures
  • Academies, professional societies and research organizations
  • Individual scientific advisers and counsellors

Before discussing these different options in detail, we need to be clear about three concepts:

  • Science for policy versus policy for science. As the term “science policy” can be misleading, it is necessary to make this distinction. Science for policy is about advising sectorial policies, that is environment, agriculture, health, foreign policies etc. Policy for science is something different: this term refers to research policies in the strict sense of the word, aimed at supporting and organizing the generation of knowledge. It includes, for instance, research funding and research infrastructures. The only overlap between the two is in the R&D domain. For example, designing a funding instrument for research is policy for science. Providing a study on the likely impact this instrument is going to have is science for policy. Unfortunately, the two dimensions are frequently mixed up. When working for the former Commission Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover I often came across national science ministers who believed that science advice in their country had been sorted by having a body advising them on research policies. So let’s be clear: when we talk about scientific advice to policy-making, we talk about science for policy, not policy for science.
  • Formal advice versus informal advice. Any government that is committed to evidence-informed policy-making has formalized processes in place to ensure that scientific evidence makes its way into legislation. This can have different forms, from involving scientists from the very beginning of the policy process to consulting them in the frame of stakeholder consultations to procuring scientific studies via public tenders. All contributions are formally documented and may even be referred to in legislative documents. Formal advice usually works at weekly to monthly, sometimes yearly, time scales. In contrast, informal advice is when a politician grabs the phone and calls a scientist of his/her choice to ask for his/her opinion. This happens in particular when a quick assessment is needed either “now”, “this afternoon” or “within the next 24 hours”. It is to be noted that informal advice can never replace a formal advisory process. It can however expedite the take-up of science in the political process.
  • Scientific support to policy versus scientific advice to politics. This is a concept which has not yet really found its way into the teaching books, but I think it is important to make this distinction. Scientific support to policy is the nitty-gritty stuff, i.e. when scientists provide technical reports, check whether the numbers in the legislation are correct, whether the thresholds indicated are actually useful and measurable and the references given reflect the state of the art. This support happens at the technical level and the counterpart of the scientist is usually the desk officer in the government department who was asked by his/her political masters to draft a piece of legislation. Scientific advice to politics is different and has totally different dynamics: it is not about putting the numbers into the legislation and often not even about checking them, it is about explaining what the numbers mean, with the aim not only of convincing the politician of the evidence, but also of helping him/her to defend the evidence in public. In this case the counterpart of the scientist is an elected politician, e.g. a Minister or a Member of Parliament.

It is very important to have these concepts in mind when talking about the different types of science advisers as the different types tick different boxes. So let’s have a look at these types.

The President's Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) of the previous European Commission
The President’s Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) of the previous European Commission

First, advisory committees or councils. Such committees can either be permanent or ad-hoc and are usually set up for a very specific task, for instance advising on emerging health risks or the ethical implications of new technologies. Advisory committees are mostly filled with external experts – from academies, industry or civil society. Usually they are not paid for their advice, but just receive their travel costs reimbursed. The advice provided by advisory committees is formal and on record. While most advisory committees advise policy-makers, there are also a few ones advising politicians. The most prominent example is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) in the United States, which had a counterpart in the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) in the previous European Commission. The High-level Group currently being set up by the Commission under the Science Advisory Mechanism – replacing STAC as well as the former Chief Scientific Adviser – will serve the College of Commissioners, i.e. is also aimed at supporting the political level of the Commission.

An example in the EU Member States is the National Science & Technology Council of Portugal (CNCT) whose mission is to “provide advice to the government on transversal matters related to science and technology with the aim to define national mid- to long-term policies and strategies.” Its mission is to “advise on the definition of science & technology policies, the promotion of excellence in science, technology and education, the internationalization of Portuguese science, the interministerial articulation of science, technology and innovation policies, and scientific advice to the development of policies and public services in all areas of government.” This mission very clearly mixes science for policy with policy for science – as the Council reports to the Science Minister, it is easy to guess which of the two topics prevails.

This shows one of the main problems of “general science advice” type of committees: unless it is clearly stated that they are not supposed to comment on research policies, they tend to devote significant time to research policies or general why-science-is-important type of issues, rather than advising on other sectorial policies. Another problem of committee-type solutions is that they only meet once in a while (with members frequently missing half of the meeting due to delayed flights or early departures). Also, for being external to the body they are advising, it usually takes members quite some time to get to grips with the legal and institutional constraints of the organization they are advising. Therefore, a Committee-type solution necessarily depends on a highly efficient, capable Secretariat that bridges the times inbetween meetings and prepares these so well that committee members can use their limited time wisely. If the conditions are right, however, committees can be very useful, in particular because they are independent of the body they are advising and are thus less likely to shy away from inconvenient messages, while still being small enough to allow consensus opinions.

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) with its infrastructures plays a key role in providing scientific-technical support to European policies
The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) plays a key role in providing scientific-technical support to European policies

Second, permanent or ad-hoc scientific/technical advisory structures. What is meant here are, for instance, internal science services (like the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre JRC), agencies and public authorities (like the European Food Safety Authority EFSA or the US Environmental Protection Agency) or similar public bodies, such as research institutes that depend directly from sectorial ministries (like the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment BfR or the National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST in the US). These bodies are usually heavy weights with a strong reputation and strong institutional capabilities. Another big advantage is their direct access to policy-makers, being the preferred point to call by policy-makers, either because this relationship is written into legislation or based on joint work programmes or simply because they are perceived by policy-makers as being “part of the family”. Their job is essentially to do the nitty-gritty scientific-technical support, often combined with formal regulatory tasks.

The proximity to the policy-making machinery makes them understand the needs of policy-makers well and enables them to deliver tailor-made support within the required time frames. The same proximity, however, means that they are not always perceived as being entirely independent. Critics sometimes voice that due to political pressure inconvenient messages might get down-toned or delayed until when politically better suited. In fact, while their science certainly is independent – as it is peer-reviewed by the scientific community – such scientific-technical advisory structures often have to adapt to the programmatic priorities of their political masters (except in areas where they carry out regulatory tasks). Still, they would not have the reputation they have if their advice would be seen as biased. There is no case in Europe where such an organization plays a formal role of being “the” government science adviser, except perhaps for the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. In most cases these organizations do not provide advice to government in general, but rather to the Ministry they happen to report to.

Academy organizations like the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) play an increasing role in advising European policies
Academy organizations like the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) play an increasing role in advising European policies

Third, academies, professional societies and research organizations. The big advantage of academies of science is their independence and impeccable scientific reputation due to rigorous procedures. Academies and learned societies have the possibility to tap into a large pool of eminent experts across a wide range of disciplines (which does not mean that these are among the most interdisciplinary thinkers), which makes their advice credible and well respected in public. In some EU Member States academies of science play a formal role as government science advisers, as is the case in Austria, Hungary and Poland, and, to a lesser but growing extent, in Germany. Also the US National Academy of Science is a well-respected voice in government circles. A certain handicap of academies is that their membership tends to be a) male and b) old, which makes them less open for “crazy” ideas that challenge well-established views. Academies are well aware of this deficiency and try to tackle it by establishing, for instance, young academies. Another problem is a certain disconnectedness of the academies of the political process in many countries which leads sometimes to brilliant reports being delivered after a related political decision has been taken. The science academies in Europe are working hard to tackle this issue and their link to the European Commission’s new Science Advisory Mechanism will hopefully be an example to follow.

While academies with their centuries of history and real estate are powerful actors, other learned/professional societies are rather weak. I am referring here to all those Associations/Federations/Societies of XYZ-logists/-nomers/-graphers/-ists/-ticians whose budgets largely depend on individual membership contributions. They face the same institutional and financial constraints like advocacy NGOs and in fact, most of them do not have an office in Brussels or even a European roof organization that could represent them in European policy-making. However, they can provide very valuable advice, in particular as many of them play a key role in organizing citizen science (guiding hobby bird or sky watchers, for instance). Other research organizations, such as research universities or extra-university institutes and their associations frequently deliver advice that is highly relevant at the technical level (often via contracts), but less heard at the political level (unless when it is about policy for science) because their sheer number makes their advice often disappear in the “background noise”, except when picked up by the media or cherry-picked by a politician who uses a scientific statement to underpin his/her view of the world.

The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand Professor Sir Peter Gluckman
The Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir Peter Gluckman

Fourth, individual scientific advisers and counselors. Here I refer to my previous blog post about the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Adviser. This model is particularly popular in the “Anglo-Saxon” World, especially in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and India. The particular strength of this model is the one single number a politician has to dial in order to get prompt scientific advice, 24/7 all year round. It also gives a publicly visible (and accountable) face to science, which is helpful for public debate. While usually being backed by an office of 5-50 people, the individual science adviser, however, can never replace the technical scientific support provided to policy by other science advisory bodies. He or she is an evidence translator, not an evidence provider. Of course, the individual adviser cannot be an expert in all scientific fields. But he or she knows whom to ask and is able to judge whether scientific evidence is sound. For this reason individual advisers can also play an important role as a “watchdog” for the integrity of the government’s science advisory system.

None of the above mentioned models trumps the others. In fact, due to their individual advantages and disadvantages it is normal to find a mixture of various types in any given science advisory system. The best suited model(s) will always depend on the respective institutional landscape and history as well as political and societal traditions and priorities. The important point is to have an independent science advisory system in place with clearly defined roles and procedures.


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