Exploring how to improve the science-policy interface


The JRC-COST INGSA 2021 satellite panel on ‘Independence in science advice’ explored how to improve the science-policy interface.

Following a series of summer webinars exploring the stakes of science communication and science for policy exercises, COST and the JRC (Joint Research Centre) joined forces once again at the International Network for Government Science Advice‘s INGSA2021 conference ‘Build back wiser: knowledge, policy and publics in dialogue’. The online satellite session took place on 9 September 2021 and addressed the topic of independence in science advice through an animated discussion, moderated by former European news correspondent Cathy Smith, between three panel members:

– Dr Sara Basart, Chair of the COST Action International Network to Encourage the Use of Monitoring and Forecasting Dust Products (InDust),
– Dr Jan Marco Müller, Science & Technology Advisor at the European Union External Action Service, and
– Prof. David Budtz Pedersen, Chair of the COST Cross-Cutting Activity on Science Communication

How the COVID-19 pandemic led to science communication public awareness

One of the first facts pointed out by the panellists is the role the pandemic has played in raising public awareness about independence of science, but also about independence of politics. “The roles played by scientists and politicians are extremely different”, explains Dr Müller. “The role of politicians is to take decisions in a very complicated and complex environment, which is something we need to acknowledge. The role of scientists, on the other hand, is to inform, and more particularly to provide evidence to policy makers.”

The observation made during the pandemic is that demand for policy making and scientific advice was higher and also more visible to citizens than outside times of crises. On both sides, scientists and policymakers had to defend themselves against the suspicion of ‘bending’ the science to fit political needs. However, perhaps less expected, the public discourse also shed light on the other side of that equation. Politicians and other policy makers suddenly found themselves criticised for allegedly blindly following scientific advisers’ suggestions, and allegations of countries being run by virologists instead of elected politicians surfaced.

When asked if an independent science advisor even exists, Dr Müller responded: “Absolutely. Of course, we have our own biases and opinions but we have to be aware of them, factor them in and stick to a transparent approach when we feed into the policy process. My role is to question if policy is really based on the best possible evidence. You are a translator between both worlds and need to gain trust from both sides.”

Prof. Pedersen added that “in times of emergencies like pandemics, climate change and other urgent issues, you have to be pragmatic and understand that the voice of scientists can only be heard within a limited timeframe. So, what you need to do is to make as much scientific sense as possible throughout the policy process. In many of these situations, scientists are only one component of a very complex policy process. In this way scientists can help shape policy making but should never be in charge of decision making.”

How trust, community and science advisors can ensure scientific independence

Creating an environment of trust between policy makers and the scientific community is essential to bridge the gap between the need for transparency and confidentiality. “In general, trust is extremely important. It is promoted and created by openness, transparency and responsibility. These are the very core principles of science advice”, explained Prof. Pedersen. Trust is driven by the community and common values. To build trust, and therefore to create dialogue, the challenge is not only to gather policy makers, scientists and the civil society around shared common values, but also to create an open space for co-creation and dialogue. Dr Basart underlined that “scientists are now facing a new challenge: communication. First, it is important to create a need in society by explaining the problem and thereby creating interest. Then you must reflect on the best way to communicate your research to a wider audience.” She also highlighted that “for a scientist it is very difficult to start a new discussion and to enter the complicated world of policy making.”

The discussion also led to the question how the scientific community, and more specifically science advisors, can preserve its independence and integrity when advising policy makers. Critics within the scientific community itself wonder whether science advisors can be compromised or could compromise the research to fit a broader political agenda. Dr Müller finds one solution in the establishment of a science advisory ecosystem: “There are different science advice mechanisms and all have their specific advantages and disadvantages, ranging from chief science advisors with their individual, outspoken roles to agencies that provide more technical expertise. It is the mix that makes a science advisory ecosystem independent and resilient. COVID-19 has increased the pressure for governments to step up efforts in this area.

In addition, Prof. Pedersen promoted the idea of having guidelines (‘code of conduct’) in place on how to behave when providing input into policy making.

Dr Basart promoted multi-disciplinarity as a key condition for comprehensive, independent science advice: “When we talk about science advice, this means bringing together people from different backgrounds and expertise.

Panellists agreed that a multidisciplinary approach accelerates progress in both policy making and science.

Dr Müller shared the reflection that “policy and science work at different speed. Policy makers need to produce news every day, or several times a day when dealing with a crisis for example. And science, of course, is an exercise that produces publications at a lower pace. What is important is to create a space where the two can meet.”

Concluding remarks

The key condition for valuable science informed policy advice is effective and clear communication. What happens after giving advice is pure politics. Moreover, it is important to make a distinction between science advice and science work, as these two are very different.” – Dr Sara Basart

Policy makers should be open about using scientific evidence and still feel they can make decisions that go against scientific advice. At the same time, we as scientists need to realise that we have a societal role, we need to get out of our ivory towers and out of our comfort zone.” – Dr Jan Marco Müller

It all comes down to institutional mechanisms which recognise the limits of science. Science informs, but does not make up policy.” – Prof. David Budtz Pedersen

COST programme · JRC-COST – ‘Independence in science advice'

Further reading

Connecting Science and Policy at joint COST-JRC seminar – COST
COST Cross-Cutting Activity (CCA) on Science Communication: Webinar – COST
Cross-Cutting Activity: Webinar explores effective codes of conduct and practices for European science communication – COST
Biographies of panel members and moderator