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Navigating the intersection of science and policy-making: advice from the advisers

New Zealand’s chief scientist Peter Gluckman was among a trio of advisers offering their insights at the recent AAAS annual meeting.


In recent years there’s been no shortage of workshop opportunities on communicating science, public engagement in science and influencing government at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science – the largest general science gathering in the world. The 2018 edition was no exception. But as this year’s meeting in Austin, Texas, started winding down on Feb. 18, participants packed a large meeting room to go beyond the tools and tactics, and get advice from top science advisers from New Zealand, the EU and Canada.

While climate change, vaccinations and healthcare are a few of the most challenging areas when it comes to evidence-based policy-making, the speakers stressed that in any policy area, the complex relationships among facts, values, emotions and policy decisions must be understood to build trust and influence decision-making.

The session, entitled “Facts and Values in Public Policy Making,” included words of wisdom from Peter Gluckman, chief science adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. He emphasized that science alone can never actually make public policy. Rather, he said, it can inform policy-making. And there are things the research community can do to be more successful in that endeavour.

He encouraged those in the room to understand and accept that policy will always be driven by anecdotes and politics. “People can pick out what they claim is evidence for the position they want to take,” he said.

Being successful at helping to shape policy requires a solid understanding of the policy-making process, he continued. “I’ve never said to a policy maker: ‘More research is needed.’” The science that is available at decision time is what matters, he said.

There is no reason why individual scientists can’t legitimately advocate, but Dr. Gluckman warned that scientist advocacy is often associated with reduced trust in the message — and can be seen as no different from other forms of lobbying.

“I think trust is best achieved with a brokered approach [and] providing options, that’s what [scientists] are good at.” Decisions, he said, should be left to the policy-makers and politicians. “The most important thing we do is avoiding hubris.”

That doesn’t mean scientists can’t discuss values, he added, but it’s how they discuss them. “We need to acknowledge that science itself is not values-free in this discussion.”

Dr. Gluckman argued that a lack of understanding is what really leads to bad policy-making. “The most important thing I can do is make sure the prime minister and the policy-makers actually understand the options.”

The two most important points at which scientists need to intersect with the policy-making process are at the beginning, to influence the initial framing of a policy decision, and at the end, to see if the final draft bill or decision has been corrupted along the way, Dr. Gluckman continued. “Sometimes [bills] have to be sent back to be reframed,” he said. And sometimes, he acknowledged, science advocacy loses.

“We live in democracies. The political community has the right to override the evidence. We might not like them overriding the evidence, but that’s what democracy means.”

But, he had a few suggestions for how to reduce the risk of failure. One is to get beyond single disciplines. “It makes no sense to go into a discussion about climate change only with a climate scientist,” he said. The broader scientific considerations, including the social sciences, need to be presented.

Dr. Gluckman was joined in the session by David Mair, who works for the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and Canada’s new chief science adviser, Mona Nemer.

Dr. Mair also promoted the idea of brokering the relationship between scientists and policy-makers.  “We are probably going need to create a knowledge brokering position at the interface of evidence and policy,” he said. Such a role, he argued, would necessitate skills in managing expert communities.

“How do you get the best minds and the policy-makers to come together?” Research synthesis, he said, will be crucial to the future of policy-making. Advising policy-makers, he said, is “a different skill than simply communicating science.”

Dr. Nemer – acknowledging that she is the “new kid on the block” among science advisers – said engaging with the public is also important for the policy-making process. “Not to lecture them, but in engaging with them. These are skills that are learned. … We need to be teaching those skills to our science undergraduates and scientists.”

“Most people actually don’t understand the scientific method,” she said. Addressing that problem, she argued, would help the public hold politicians and decision-makers accountable for their actions.

Next year’s AAAS annual meeting will take place in Washington, D.C., Feb. 14-18, 2019.

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