Policy making is increasingly dependent on complex evidence, and input from experts is required for decision makers to tackle both unexpected challenges and the everyday business of government. Providing expert advice to national policy makers is quite challenging, and different countries have come up with different mechanisms to do so with differing degrees of success.

Many of the challenges society faces today, from global epidemics to climate change, and the science needed to address them, often go beyond national borders and require international efforts. Providing such advice to international and supranational organizations, which involve several different stakeholders and political cultures, is even more challenging. This has recently attracted the attention of policy makers, scholars and those providing advice.

Scientific advice in Europe

Brussels has recently been at the centre of attention about scientific advice, following the concerns about the continuation of the post of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission, and the recent long-awaited announcement of a new scientific advisory mechanism to replace it (see my colleague Laura Wilton’s blog post).

Discussion between Carlos Moedas and Jean-Claude Juncker

Discussion between Carlos Moedas, on the right, and Jean-Claude Juncker. © European Union, 2015

Each EU Member State has its own specific political culture and attitude towards expertise in public decision making, and finding a common ground is not always easy. Academic experts, civil servants, agencies and scientific academies all play different roles in different countries, and any one model of scientific advice will hardly suit an organization such as the EU whose motto is “united in diversity”. Moreover, EU institutions have been around for long enough to develop their own unique institutional and political cultures, so that any mechanism to provide them with scientific advice will have to be tailor-made.

The EU research Commissioner had been tasked by President Juncker to “reflect and present options […] on how to better institutionalise future independent scientific advice to the Commission, based on the experience made in all Member States”. The newly announced mechanism will hopefully reflect the findings of this review, engaging with all the parties involved including the Joint Research Centre, EU Agencies and scientific academies across Europe.

On 27 April, a few weeks before the new mechanism was announced, a collection of essays reflecting on the “Future directions for scientific advice in Europe”, edited by James Wilsdon and Robert Doubleday, was presented in Brussels. At the event, the authors and other speakers approached the issue by looking beyond the role of Chief Scientific Advisor to the wider institutional ecosystem of science advice with the Commission and other EU institutions.

Although debates about scientific advice in the EU have sometimes before been framed in terms of the symbolic importance (or lack thereof) attributed by the Commission to science, contributors presented it instead as an organisational problem. Governments, including the European Commission, are complex organizations that require complex arrangements to get something done. The practical challenges of effectively delivering scientific advice to the complex institutional machinery of the Commission are outlined in the essay from Anne Glover, former Euro CSA, and Jan-Marco Muller, her former Chief of Staff, and were echoed during the event by Robert Madelin, Director General of DG CONNECT. Both highlighted how improved procedures and institutional arrangements can sometimes achieve more than the establishment of any new body.

Cross-border scientific advice in emergencies

A recent OECD paper on the roles and responsibilities of those providing scientific advice in emergencies explores the issue from a different angle, acknowledging that many important scientific issues cross national borders and, although science is an international enterprise, the international dimension of scientific advice remains underdeveloped. This raises a number of issues.

Radiation hotspot in Kashiwa

Radiation hotspot in Kashiwa

In the event of a crisis for example, such as the Fukushima incident that inspired the report, conflicting advice from different sources can create great confusion and lack of trust. With instant communication across the globe easily available, it is vital to ensure international coordination between those providing advice to maintain an authoritative voice during trans-national major crises.

Other issues raised in the report include how to ensure the political legitimacy of those providing advice to international organisations and buy-in from those receiving it, and how to ensure inclusion and representations of all legitimate sources of expertise.

The findings of the report will be discussed in a OECD ministerial meeting in October in Korea. Future OECD work on the topic could provide a foundation for improving international cooperation and explore opportunities for international coordination mechanisms in crisis situations and/or longer–term global crises.

A Global Network for Scientific Advice

A similar conclusion was reached by the first Science Advice global conference, organized in Auckland last summer by the Chief Scientific of New Zealand and the International Council for Science (ICSU). One of the outcomes of the conference was the creation of an International Network for Government Science Advice, a global ‘community of practice’ to share best practices and coordinate advice across borders. The network has already a number of activities planned and will convene again for a second conference in 2016 in Brussels.

Overall, the science advice community is becoming more self-aware and reflective, and at the same time more open. Expertise from all those involved in the advisory process is being complemented by scholarly understanding of the underlying processes. The increasing weight of decisions taken by international bodies such as the EU and the UN on important issues such as health and climate make it imperative to develop a better understanding and practice of cross-border scientific advice. The Royal Society has long been at the forefront of both scientific advice and scientific diplomacy and is currently looking into how to best bring these two worlds together.