Science policy…the endless frontier

Science policy? A necessary, and salient feature of the 21st century landscape. Think for a moment about how science and technology policies are threaded throughout the world’s agenda. Food? Water? Energy? Commerce and trade? Health? Entertainment? War? Crime and punishment? Law? The environment? Exercise? Education? Religion? Hazards? Whether sacred or profane, trivial or essential, whimsical or grave, every element and activity of life these days is subject to scientific scrutiny, observation and measurement, theory and hypothesis. And every bit of that science seems to be arguable – usable as a weapon in policy debate and formulation – not by just one but all sides. Think climate change. Stem cell research. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

So science policy, that beguiling and intriguing – let’s say it – bewitching – blend of discipline and thought and action linking the formulation of the rules by which we live to the laws that govern nature, is not working all that smoothly, is it?

Maybe that’s not just because it’s difficult to execute. Perhaps we simply don’t know enough about it.

How might we go about learning more? Or taking a preliminary step – identifying which aspects or features of science policy merit our disciplined study and contemplation?

Well, we might try getting together a group of participants in the science-policy process. Let’s say we choose them from all contributors to that process: government, the private sector, academia, NGO’s… Let’s choose 52 (so we can claim to be playing with a full deck?). Ask them each individually to articulate priority researchable questions in this arena – questions that if addressed might produce insight, but – more importantly – might help practitioners better cope with real-world challenges. Then bring them together and ask them to winnow down the list, hone and refine the ones they kept at each stage, through successive iterations.

Which brings us to a fascinating paper making the rounds: A Collaboratively-Derived Science-Policy Research Agenda – published by PLoS-one[1]. William Sutherland and his 51 co-authors did just this.

Here are their 40 questions, verbatim, binned into six categories:

Understanding the role of scientific evidence in policymaking

  1. How do different political cultures and institutions affect the acquisition and treatment of scientific evidence in policy formulation, implementation and evaluation?
  2. How do scientists and policy makers recognise and convey the limitations of scientific advice?
  3. At what stages during the development of policy does scientific evidence have the greatest impact on the decisions made?
  4. Under what conditions does scientific evidence legitimise political decisions?
  5. What roles have science and other forms of expertise played in international governance regimes, such as the World Trade Organisation?
  6. Are there conditions under which scientific evidence may help resolve value-laden conflict and if so, what are those conditions?
  7. What factors affect the utility and legitimacy of formal decision support, assessment and evaluation tools, and their adoption (or otherwise) by policy makers?
  8. What influences the form and application of monitoring and evaluation practices in the development of policy informed by science?

Framing questions, sourcing evidence and advice, shaping research

  1. How do policy makers decide which questions they should ask their expert advisors and when in the policy cycle they should be asked?
  2. What are the most effective mechanisms for identifying the evidence required to inform policy-making on new and emerging problems?
  3. How, and with what consequences, have the sources of scientific evidence and advice used by policy makers changed over recent decades?
  4. In what ways do different political cultures shape the frameworks through which evidence and advice are sourced?
  5. In what circumstances are policy problems likely to require the inclusion of experts with conflicting views?
  6. When is it considered appropriate to consult experts with conflicting views, and what mechanisms can ensure that this takes place?
  7. What factors influence whether different disciplines are included effectively when defining and addressing complex policy problems?
  8. What are the mechanisms by which budgetary pressures and societal constraints on policy-making influence the prioritisation and funding of research?
  9. What is the effectiveness of different techniques for anticipating future policy issues requiring science input?

Advisory systems and networks

  1. How are national science advisory systems constructed and to what extent do different systems result in different outcomes?
  2. How and why does the role of scientific advice in policy-making differ among local, regional, national and international levels of governance?
  3. Which commissioning and operational arrangements lead to the most effective use of science in policy-making?
  4. Policy makers typically use networks of experts, formal and informal. How does the structure and composition of such networks influence the outcomes of decision making?
  5. How do different ways of using and organising in-house scientific expertise affect the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice in policy-making?
  6. What are the consequences of different approaches to institutionalising, professionalising and building capacity in the exchange of knowledge between science and policy?
  7. How can the effectiveness of knowledge-brokering [5] be assessed?

Policy making under conditions of uncertainty and disagreement

  1. How is agreement reached on what counts as sufficient evidence to inform particular policy decisions?
  2. How is scientific evidence incorporated into representations of, and decision-making about, so-called “wicked” problems, which lack clear definition and cannot be solved definitively?
  3. Can distinctions be made in scientific advice between facts and values; to the extent that this is possible, how effective are policy makers in distinguishing them and what factors influence their effectiveness?
  4. How can risks, and the associated uncertainties, complexities, ambiguities and ignorance, be effectively characterised and communicated?
  5. How do policy makers understand and respond to scientific uncertainties and expert disagreements?
  6. Do different approaches to building consensus, or illuminating lack of consensus, result in different consequences for policy and, if so, why?

Democratic governance of scientific advice

  1. What factors (for example, openness, accountability, credibility) influence the degree to which the public accept as trustworthy an expert providing advice?
  2. What governance processes and enabling conditions are needed to ensure that policymaking is scientifically credible, while addressing a perceived societal preference for policy processes that are more democratic than technocratic?
  3. How might the attitudes and values of diverse publics relating to science and technology, and their governance, be incorporated effectively into debates about the use of evidence in policy-making?
  4. What has been the influence of scrutinising institutions, such as those of legislative bodies (e.g. Parliament, Congress, National Assembly or Bundestag) on the roles of science in policy-making?
  5. What are the implications for their effectiveness of opening up expert advisory processes to different forms of transparency?
  6. What are the implications for science-policy relations, and for the democratisation of science, of novel methods of engagement and dissemination (such as citizen science, and new media technologies, including social media)?

How do scientists and policy makers understand expert advisory processes?

  1. What factors shape the ways in which scientific advisors and policy makers make sense of their own and each other’s roles in the policy process?
  2. How and why have the conceptual models of science-policy relations held by policy makers, scientists and other stakeholders changed over time, and with what consequences?
  3. How is guidance on the handling and communication of risk, uncertainty and ambiguity interpreted by policy makers, and what impact do their views have on the uptake and implementation of recommendations?
  4. What impact has research on the relationship between science and policy actually had on science policy?

Food for thought? It’s a banquet, a smorgasbord, a policy-wonk’s most gluttonous fantasy come true.

A lot to digest. But we’ve got a little time. Chew slowly, savor the taste, contemplate…


[1]Sutherland WJ , Bellingan L , Bellingham JR , Blackstock JJ , Bloomfield RM , et al. (2012) A Collaboratively-Derived Science-Policy Research Agenda. PLoS ONE 7(3): e31824. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031824


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3 Responses to Science policy…the endless frontier

  1. A rather complete list, at least in terms of converting “consensus” science into policy. The questions all seem pointed toward making the “science-to-policy” bureaucracy more efficient. Three things seem missing:
    • A focus on how effectively policy-makers utilize the science they adopt as the basis for policy formulation (ultimately, how well did the policies work), i.e., how to make the “science-to-policy” bureaucracy more effective;
    • A focus on policy makers sponsoring science either to provide the basis for policy, or to evaluate the effectiveness of policy;
    • How to get the “ah-ha’s” more rapidly into the policy arena.

    The latter – to me – is the most interesting and complex, and the one that probably goes against the grain of this report the most. To be a little less terse, the question would be something like – “How and when do we bring scientific results that are outside the mainstream into the policy-making arena?” For example, we have an entire federal bureaucracy (actually an interlocking web of departmental bureaucracies) aimed at climate change. As far as I can tell, the policy discussions have been largely confined to the physical scientists, the regulators, and the economists to a much lesser extent. And yet, the social sciences and engineering disciplines in particular have much to contribute to the discussions but have had almost no role. The role of skeptics is already encompassed by the questions.

  2. Michael Cunningham says:

    Too much for a quick answer! In Australia in the 1980s the Hawke government attempted to deal better with environmental issues with a body bringing together environmental scientists and economists. The latter were quickly disillusioned, as the scientists refused to accept that the economists’ framework and tools had anything to contribute to environmental policies, even though most issues had economic implications. (As an economist, I’ve been open to scientific input.) The bigger problem I found was often that Ministers and department heads typically wanted even the most complex issue reduced to a one-page brief. They tended to make decisions with little comprehension of many issues other than the short-term political impact.

    To their credit, PMs Hawke and Howard and a number of their ministers generally had a commitment to developing good policy based on understanding complex issues, but this has not been the case in recent years and rarely applies at state government level. So a primary issue is: how do we get governments who will seek, and act on, the advice necessary for good public policy? For those presenting advice, a major issue is how to present the range of options (including “do-nothing,” often best but rarely appreciated by politicians) even-handedly, without imposing one’s own preferences and biases.

  3. Pingback: Science policy? What are the real challenges here? | Living on the Real World

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