As the defacto capital of the European Union, Brussels is a bureaucrat’s Mecca.
But last week it also drew some of the most senior science advisors from around the world as our own Sir Peter Gluckman held the second International Network from Government Science Advice meeting there – in the well-appointed assembly room of the European Commission’s Charlemagne Building, no less.
Post #BREXIT and with the US Presidential race entering its final stages, there was plenty of talk of “post truth politics” and discussion of whether we are living in a “post-fact” society. Do facts matter any more? Does the public care about the input of experts?
The general consensus was that yes, the public wants evidence-based decision making and to be appraised of the facts about big issues facing society. They expect politicians to push evidence-based policies. But the scientific community, science advisors and governments have a big task ahead of them making their processes more transparent, inclusive and fit for purpose so that the public trust their advice and feel like their views have been heard.
The problem was well-articulated in Brussels – all the science-side factors that go into formulating scientific advice aren’t really connecting properly with the people who need to use that advice in developing policy and ultimately with the public, whose lives will be affected by those policies.
Post normal science
Here’s the problem. Apparently we are in an era of “post normal science”. What does that mean? According to the academics Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome R. Ravetz who coined the term in the nineties, it is a situation where ‘facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent’.
You could argue that those conditions have existed for a long time, but it is fair to say that in the age of the internet, social media, globalisation, much greater mobility of people and accelerating scientific innovation and technological disruption, they are more acute than ever before.
As Sir Peter put it in his opening address in Brussels:
“Much science applied or needed in the policy space is inevitably ‘post-normal’. These characteristics, and the frequent failure of the
science community to recognize them, can make publics, policy makers and politicians skeptical about the role and utility of science.”
That skepticism hasn’t just been highlighted by high profile events like Brexit, where the United Kingdom turned its back on Europe despite the balance of evidence suggesting staying in the EU was the smart thing to do. It is reflected in some deeper trends, such as France’s major skepticism about vaccine safety, growing anti-GM sentiment there and in other EU countries and Eurobarometer surveys that see respondents fairly ambivalent about whether future scientific and technological innovation will have a positive impact.
Not long after Sir Peter’s inaugural meeting of science advisors held in Auckland in 2014, the EU’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Anne Glover, was effectively forced out of her job as a result of her evidence-based support of GM technologies. It seemed like an incredibly anti-science move by EU politicians. But they were simply reflecting the sentiment of their constituents. Something deeper is going on and it has a complex root structure in Europe’s social and political conditions.
Getting a handle on how society is changing
The clearest summation I’ve read of what is going on emerged just this week from the RAND Corporation in the form of the paper “Social change and public engagement with policy and evidence“, which was commissioned by the UK-based Sense About Science and the Nuffield Foundation. The report looked at UK data sets and examples, but there are conclusions to draw from it that apply in many countries.
This is my interpretation of the report’s major findings:
Trust and engagement with politics and institutions
- Trust in politics and politicians is low and people are generally dissatisfied with the state of democracy.
- The less likely people believe the government is to address important issues facing society, the more disengaged from politics they become.
- Voter turnout is down, but young are getting more interested in politics and engaging in different ways.
- Trust in generic public institutions is actually quite strong eg: NHS, police, universities and interest in local delivery of services is high.
- Trust and engagement with politics and institutions varies based on socio-economic status.
- Trust in experts, science and academics is high and has increased and people expect political decision-making to be based on expert opinion. BUT – there are very mixed views on whether experts’ views should be prized above those of the public.
Social changes having profound effects
- Economic outlook has a major impact on political engagement and post recession, banking and sub-prime mortgage collapses and the loss of jobs due to automation, this is a significant factor on many countries.
- Immigration, population growth and the ageing population are changing communities significantly, but local culture is still a strong factor.
- Our identities are becoming more pluralistic – traditional indicators such as birthplace, trade, religion etc, don’t mean as much any more.
The impact of technology
- The internet and connected devices have emerged very quickly and disrupted how we engage with information.
- There’s a digital divide that sees the old, poor, disabled less intensive users of digital technology and the internet.
- Social media use has increased dramatically – unclear yet what impact this is having on political engagement or trust in evidence.
- The media has dramatically changed due to the 24-7 news cycle and the rise of online news, but its still unclear whether traditional media are losing influence.
Implications for policy making
- Rise of UKIP etc show increasing political pluralism and appetite for new forms of representation, but not huge appetite for electoral reform.
- Rise of digital platforms bringing more transparency and new opportunities for state-public communication, but is too often treated as a top-down PR tool by governments rather than fostering true engagement.
- Data science and digital platforms allow micro-targeting of voters but as we found with BREXIT, this isn’t making polls any more accurate.
- Digital campaigning and activism becoming very prominent, giving previously marginalised people a voice eg: #blacklivesmatter
- Immediacy of social media and reach of online platforms means misinformation and rumour can spread quickly.
- Our cultural communities and our political community may be increasingly out of sync. “Each individual’s multiple and overlapping identities and interests may come to the fore at different times and in different arenas.”
- Social media is a powerful tool to “take the temperature” of the public, but it can’t be relied on to accurately represent public opinion as its use isn’t uniform and it gives prominence to “trending conversations”.
- The public square has broadened but we are not necessarily hearing the same debate because “we are all, consciously or unconsciously, the editors of our personalised media experiences”.
- The public are keen to engage with politics and public services, but the relationship is complex and may differ across policy issues. Eg: 70% of the UK public are happy to leave climate change to the UK Government, but only 20% are happy “abdicating responsibility for health and welfare”.
Where does that leave us all, other than rubbing our temples and thinking it is all too difficult?
The Brussels meeting was successful at articulating the problems outlined above, but less so at plotting the way ahead.
But one thing was clear:
Science advice needs a reboot
The shift that is needed is well-illustrated by the slide below from Sir Peter’s presentation.
All of the things in the left column are integral to putting together evidence-based scientific advice, but if that advice doesn’t account for those things in the right column, is isn’t going to be of much use to politicians and ultimately the public.
So a big shift is needed, and we got some idea of how institutions are trying to make their scientific advice processes more fit for purpose. The change this may require on the part of scientists can’t be underestimated.
New science advice systems
One big experiment Europe is running, which we got a flavour of in Brussels, is its new Scientific Advice Mechanism, which replaces in part Professor Anne Glover’s science advisory role.
The SAM is a group of seven high-level scientists from across Europe who come together to deliberate on issues EU commissioners want input into. I met some of them at the INGSA meeting – they were approachable, engaged and sensitive to the world of post-normal science they are working in.
The EU gets lots of scientific advice from other sources, including the Joint Research Centre, EU research funded through Horizon 2020 and EU agencies. But the SAM will focus on using science to inform policy needs for short term issues, such as pandemic outbreaks, policy initiatives for big picture issues such as climate change, and long-term issues such as food and water security.
They put out a short paper on glyphosate use in Europe earlier this year and will this month deliver their first big paper laying out potential ways to better measure CO2 emissions from cars, a topical issue following the Volkswagon emissions scandal of last year. Next year will see advice delivered on the issue of cybersecurity.
How this differs from how science advice has been formulated in the past isn’t entirely clear yet. Nor is it clear whether the advice of the SAM will be treated any differently by institutions and politicians in the way it is socialised with the public.
It is good to see however that the SAM’s media policy allows these high-powered scientists to continue to freely express their own opinions:
“The members of the HLG retain their individual liberty to express opinions publically but, when doing so, should make a clear distinction between the opinion of the HLG and any opinion expressed in their personal capacity. In their functions as members of the HLG they should refrain from advocating any particular political or policy action or agenda. The HLG decides collegially how to communicate the results of its work.”
Everyone I talked to in Brussels seemed to be taking a wait and see approach to the SAM, which has the potential to elevate the role of scientific advice in EU policy making in a way that hasn’t been done before.
From pure science to knowledge brokering
On my longhaul flight to London was the University of Auckland Professor Shaun Hendy, who was attending a different science policy conference last week – the What Works Global Summit, which aimed to look at “putting evidence to work for better policies, programmes and practice”.
In a blog post pondering on New Zealand’s relationship with scientific advice, Hendy revisits the work of Professor Roger Pielke, the American political scientist famous for a book about scientific advice called The Honest Broker.
Pielke says there are four modes for how scientists can give advice: The Pure Scientist, The Science Arbiter, The Issue Advocate and The Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives.
I’ll let Pielke describe each type of science advisor:
The Pure Scientist
This role doesn’t really exist in the real world. Well, maybe it does for a brief moment when a beginning graduate student finds someone willing to pay them to do research that s/he is curious about, But in the real world, grant applications and funding comes with expectations of impact and relevance. In any case, if the pure scientist really did exist, the role is defined by a desire not to engage. So for now, let’s leave it aside (it’ll come back shortly in the context of stealth issue advocacy).
The Science Arbiter
This role supports a decision maker by providing answers to questions that can be addressed empirically, that is to say, using the tools of science. We are most familiar with science arbiters in the form of expert advisory committees, such as those of the NRC or FDA. Dan Sarewitz and I outlined a formal methodology for thinking about and evaluating this type of role (here in PDF). Science arbitration is common and there are many examples of it being done more or less well, and on issues people care about is never far from political influences.
The Issue Advocate
The defining characteristic of this role is a desire to reduce the scope of available choice, often to a single preferred outcome among many possible outcomes. Issue advocacy is fundamental to a healthy democracy and is a noble calling. Advocacy among scientists is often viewed pejoratively, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be. Scientists are citizens and as experts have an important role to play in public debates. Advocating for candidates, policies or even directions of travel is worth doing. I am very precise in my use of this term.
The Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives
The defining characteristic of the honest broker is a desire to clarify, or sometimes to expand, the scope of options available for action. I often use the examples of travel websites like Expedia as examples of honest brokers in action. Sometimes people get caught up on the word “honest” here — what is important is the commitment to clarify the scope of possible action so as to empower the decision maker. Sometimes honest brokers are unnecessary in a political setting, for instance, when advocacy groups collectively cover the scope of available choice. But sometimes policy making would benefit from greater clarity on choice, or even the invention of choices previously unseen.
Says Pielke: “A well-functioning system of decision making and expertise will find all four roles well populated”.
However, Hendy’s view is that in New Zealand, we are largely in pure scientist and science arbiter mode:
“I would argue that these two modes dominate the approach that New Zealand scientists take to engaging with government. These are the silent scientists; they may engage behind the scenes with policy-makers, but they generally don’t make an effort to inform the public other than through very passive channels”.
The question then, which there was a lot of discussion of on the fringes of the Brussels meeting, was whether given post-normal science and all the social and information changes outlined above, scientists should be more open to playing the role of science advocate or honest broker – and doing it in a more public way.
For many scientists, these would be deeply uncomfortable positions to take. But others see them as the way forward, positions that where appropriate, more readily see the scientific community acknowledge that science only goes so far and considers the values of society in presenting and articulating advice and policy options.
The sense I got in Europe is that there’s a growing role for honest brokers in the world of science advice. But is there the will to change the culture in science, politics and foster greater public engagement to accommodate this? That’s yet to be seen, but that seems to be the real opportunity to encourage informed decision making in an increasing complex and unpredictable world.