Mind the paradigms when giving science advice

What’s your paradigm? Is it a duck or a rabbit? Credit: Wikimedia Commons
What’s your paradigm? Is it a duck or a rabbit? Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Elizabeth Bohm, The Royal Society

Elizabeth contributed this article as part of our call for blogposts on conference themes. Submit your blogpost: http://bit.ly/1yyo1P2

The spotlight is on science advice this year.  It might not be trending on Twitter yet, but there has definitely been an increased interest in what good science advice is, how that advice is formed and its impact on decision making.

Just a few of things that spring to mind are:

–          the  current debate about  the continuation of the role of Chief Science Adviser to the European Commission

–          the formation of the pan-EU network of government science advisers

–          science advisers from all over the world meeting in Auckland, New Zealand in August for a conference specifically on science advice convened by the International Council for Science

–          the Commonwealth Science Conference in Bangalore, India, in November, where one of the themes will be using evidence in public policy and on science in each region of the Commonwealth

–          Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, calling for an organisation similar to the IPCC for antimicrobial resistance

–          discussions of the successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action leading to a call for an international science advisory mechanism for disaster risk reduction to be established and promoted to strengthen the evidence base to effectively reduce disaster risk and enhance resilience.

For those of us who could be considered ‘wonks’, this comes as no great surprise as policy-makers and politicians grapple with decisions about complex topics that involve scientific issues that are uncertain. The call for ‘evidence-based’ or ‘evidence-informed’ policy has seen an increasing deployment of science in these debates, not least in relation to climate change.

The ability of science advisers to decipher the science, indicate what the uncertain and contentious bits are and then offer a range of solutions to support decision making is becoming a necessary and critical part of the process.

Scrutiny of the IPCC

Possibly the largest effort to bring together the science to inform a policy debate must be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Rather than entering the fray about the conclusions of the IPCC reports and the actions they recommend, many people are interested in the intense level of scrutiny of the process that leads to the IPCC reports, for example review by the InterAcademy Council in 2010 and more recent report by the UK House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee. It is clear from the House of Commons report that the IPCC has responded to criticisms and improved their processes now that they are up to their fifth assessment report, which is described as “the most exhaustive and heavily scrutinised to-date”.

A notable recommendation was that the transparency of the IPCC reports would be increased if a small team of non-climate scientists were allowed to observe the review process from start to finish. This is a mechanism that has been used to oversee the formation of policy recommendations around contentious issues and is an interesting one to consider.

There are definite advantages in terms of transparency of the decision-making process but, even more importantly, a group like this contributes diversity of perspectives/world views/belief systems/expertise (define your paradigm as you will). A diversity of paradigms has been and should be used to form the questions that are asked and guide the evidence that is collected. Another role could be contributing to how the evidence is interrogated and interpreted. This is a crucial step in the process where paradigms will most come into play – as in divisive and contentious issues like GM, climate change or fracking.

It must be acknowledged that we all experience confirmation bias and that just amassing evidence is not enough – it needs to be filtered through multiple paradigms. An independent oversight group was used during the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority’s consultation on three parent embryos and the lack of a polarisation of the debate suggests that there is merit to this approach.

When discussing the best way to give good science advice let’s not forget that we are all looking at it through our own paradigm.