The power and pitfalls of science advice


Scientists are providing ever more advice to governments, but in doing so risk falling foul of the political process. Photo by Robbert van der Steeg

When physicist and astronomer Penny Sackett was appointed to be Australia’s chief scientist in 2008, many other scientists thought she was an excellent choice for the job. US-born Sackett is a successful researcher, most notably in the hunt for extrasolar planets, and as head of astronomy at the Australian National University was also an accomplished administrator. But two and a half years into her five-year term as the government’s leading science adviser, she resigned. Sackett cited “personal and professional reasons”, adding that “institutions, as well as individuals, grow and evolve”. It was clear, however, that all had not been well between her and the politicians she was employed to advise.

Sackett’s experience highlights some of the tensions inherent in the science advisory process, according to James Wilsdon of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. Scientists and politicians, he says, have a kind of pact they need to honour: politicians having to respect the evidence put before them, while scientists have to steer clear of policy prescriptions.

But in 2010 Sackett effectively reneged on this deal, stating publicly that Australia was “not acting with sufficient speed” to combat global warming, following the government’s decision to put its emissions trading scheme on hold. Within nine months, Sackett had quit her post.

While Wilsdon says he does not know to what extent Sackett’s statement was directly linked to her stepping down, he has no doubt that scientists often are not prepared for the pitfalls of giving advice. “They may have the respect of their peers, while lacking the political and organizational skills needed to navigate complex policy questions,” he says.

Avoiding such pitfalls will be one of the central themes of a two-day conference entitled “Science Advice to Governments” that is being held in Auckland, New Zealand, from 28–29 August. Organized by New Zealand’s chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman on behalf of the International Council for Science (ICSU), the meeting will bring together leading science advisers and policy experts, including Wilsdon, from several dozen countries in order to stimulate “frank and fruitful” discussions about what works and what does not when scientists pass on their expertise to politicians.

Read the full article in Physics World here:

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