Sir Peter Gluckman FRS, speaking at the conference. Credit: James Wilsdon.

Science and policy are often characterised as two separate worlds, with their own goals, languages, timescales and modes of operation.

This makes the interface between them a difficult place to work, yet good relations are vital for ensuring that research evidence is used effectively by policy makers and that policy makers understand how and why to support science.

Interfaces of Science and Policy and the Role of Foundations‘ was the title of a recent conference on the topic, hosted by the German Foundation Stiftung Mercator in Berlin, and this is the first of two blog posts about my experience there.

Chief Scientific Advisers

The first day of the conference explored different models for science advice. The UK, like several other countries, has a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) who sits close to the heart of Government to advise them directly.

We heard from Sir Peter Gluckman FRS, New Zealand’s CSA, about the importance in this role of informal guidance and the ability to access extensive networks. He said this should be a two-way process: CSAs can convene scientific experts when requested, but they also have the opportunity to proactively bring science into the conversation.

Scientists as ‘map-makers’

We then heard from Ottmar Edenhofer, who was lead author on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He talked about the process of assessment making and the challenge they faced in reducing seven years of complex research to a summary page for politicians.

Edenhofer advocated the role of scientists as ‘map makers’, mapping potential future outcomes in different scenarios, but avoiding making recommendations about which path policy makers should choose; assessments in science advice should be policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive.

Both Gluckman and Edenhofer emphasised the importance and fragility of scientists’ position as trusted experts, and also the dangers of advocacy. Scientists can aim to provide facts and options, but making value judgements—and ultimately decisions—is for policy makers.

Although this led us into a heated discussion about whether facts are ever independent of values, it was clear that defining the nature of the contribution that science makes is crucial.

Science advice as ‘seasoning’

Kenneth Prewitt, from Columbia University, then gave a US perspective and divided the providers of science advice into three broader groups, using a metaphor of science advice as ‘seasoning’ that stuck with us throughout the meeting.

‘Salt’ was the answers provided by science to specific questions set by government. ‘Pepper’ characterised the contributions of foundations and think tanks, who bring science to government and can broaden the scope of the conversation, but in setting their own agendas have biases. Finally, ‘hot red pepper’ was the contribution of corporate entities, which are inherently biased, but can still add value.

For Prewitt, the challenge for each country’s system of science advice is to flavour the political process with the optimal mix of these seasonings.

The relative strengths and uses of the models of science advice we discussed became clearer over the course of the meeting, but there were no clear winners.

Beyond the ‘great whine’

Daniel Sarewitz described the marriage between science and policy as one of convenience in need of counselling, but Kenneth Prewitt spoke positively about the ‘state of the union’ of science and policy, in historical context. He said that we have moved beyond the “great whine” of scientists—that they are not consulted even though they hold great knowledge—and the “great complaint” of policymakers—that scientists don’t package evidence in a useful form.

Although it might be troubled, the relationship between science and policy is worth fighting for and how we develop the means of communication will be key to its future.

  • Michelle Kovacevic

    Great post! Just curated to the Science Advice to Governments conference website: