A rough guide to scientific advice: Diverse systems, common challenges

climate science

Scientific advice has never been in greater demand; nor has it been more contested. From climate change to cyber-security, poverty to pandemics, food technologies to fracking, the questions being asked of scientists, engineers and other experts by policymakers, the media and the wider public continue to multiply. At the same time, the authority and legitimacy of these experts is under increasing scrutiny, particularly in areas that often spark intense debate, such as climate change, energy choices and genetically-modified crops.

A new paper (download here) intends to briefly introduce the topics that will be discussed at the Auckland conference on ‘Science Advice to Governments’. The first section outlines some recent developments and debates over the provision of scientific advice. The second section surveys a number of recent sources to suggest some tentative principles for scientific advice that could form the basis for further discussion at the meeting. The third section provides a reading list of key material to assist in further learning and reflection, while an annex contains draft overviews of a range of different scientific advisory systems from economies and international organisations across the globe.

The Auckland conference comes at an important time. Across many economies and international institutions, the arrangements and methods for scientific advice and evidence-informed policymaking are being actively debated, and in some cases, new structures are being established. In recent years, New Zealand and the European Commission are among those to have appointed their first chief scientific advisors2; at an international level, fresh expert assessments are underway, such as IPBES (the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services); and new scientific advisory committees have been established, for example within the United Nations system.

These developments reinforce the importance of sharing insights and best practices across different advisory systems. It is to this end that the Auckland conference will bring together participants from over forty-five economies and international organisations – making it the largest ever gathering of scientific advisers, practitioners, policymakers, scholars and experts.

Participants at the Auckland meeting represent a broad spectrum of advisory systems, but what common lessons can we draw about how to strengthen scientific advice?

1. Diverse models reflect different political cultures

2. Advisers need to respond to the demands and rhythms of the policy process

3. It’s important to distinguish between ‘science for policy’ and ‘policy for science’

4. Advisers often have to act as intermediaries, brokers and communicators

5. You can’t resolve value conflicts through appeals to facts alone

6. Effective advice increasingly relies on interdisciplinary expertise

7. Science advisers need to align with broader shifts towards evidence-informed policymaking

8. We need more exchange & learning across different systems

(Read more about these lessons here)

A more comprehensive report will be produced after the Auckland conference, reflecting the contributions of speakers and participants.