Five Plus Four Ingredients for the Effective Use of Science to Inform Policy

A highlight of the 2015 World Science Forum in Budapest this year was the final session of the forum, which was held in the chambers of the Hungarian National Assembly.  This final session was opened by His Excellency János Áder, President of Hungary.  The session included a panel discussion moderated by Sir Peter Gluckman, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, which featured a two-part discussion on both the supply and demand sides of science advice in policy making.

Panel speakers included:

  • Patrick Cunningham, Professor of Animal Genetics, Trinity College, University of Dublin, Ireland, Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Irish Government
  • Ene Ergma, former President of the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament)
  • Rush D Holt, CEO, AAAS
  • Professor Koji Omi, Founder and Chairman, STS Forum
  • Gordon McBean, President, ICSU
  • E. Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, South Africa
  • Vladimír Šucha, Director-General of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission
  • Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia; Chair, IPBES

Comments from Vladimír Šucha, DG of the JRC in the European Commission, in particular, resonated quite broadly.  He has kindly summarised them here for INGSA readers:


Five Plus Four Ingredients for the Effective Use of Science to Inform Policy
Vladimír Šucha, Director General, European Commission Directorate General Joint Research Centre

World Science Forum, Budapest, Hungary, 6th November 2015

EU policymakers are increasingly confronted with a wide array of problems, such as climate change, economic inequality, ageing populations, energy and food security, and water scarcity. They often need their decisions to be informed by the best available science from across disciplines as these challenges no longer arrive in neat discipline-shaped boxes. This is crucial because the wrong policy can result in grave economic and social costs, and erode trust in governing institutions.

The good news is that never before in human history has so much scientific knowledge been produced and it has never been so easily accessible. We now have a better understanding of our planet, our economy, our society and of ourselves than any other time in history.

However, the process of translating this scientific knowledge into policy relevant evidence is not simple. The science-policy interface is a very specific field with its own framework requiring specific approaches. This is the area which my organisation, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission, occupies. The JRC works with EU policy makers to support their needs for scientific evidence.

It has become clear to me that to successfully operate at the science-policy interface requires five enablers, or conditions. Without addressing these enablers, and understanding the framework within which the science policy interface operates, it is not possible to successfully ensure that scientific evidence is used in the policy making process. The five enablers I am referring to are:

1) Accept: We must accept that policymaking is a mixture of politics, facts and values, and that science only contributes to one of these, namely facts. Scientists should not, therefore, expect policy to be based only on scientific evidence, because there are many other factors which need to be taken into account.

2) Face: In facing this challenge, we should acknowledge that science itself is undergoing paradigmatic change. The world of science is turbulent at present owing to new technologies, which are changing the way that scientific knowledge is being produced, distributed or transferred. There is a huge integrity crisis whereby the quality of the scientific data and information being produced is under question. There is a multiplicity of actors, with scientists no longer only based in universities or research institutes; citizens are now also actors in scientific knowledge production. Even the definition of scientific excellence is being questioned, with the current definition too narrowly defined. Until we face these challenges, and address their implications, we will not be able to produce the best, high quality scientific evidence that policy needs.

3) Embrace: Each policy issue is a complex system incorporating a multitude of factors. Science, in contrast, remains focussed on narrow, thematic silos. For science to really address policy needs it has to move beyond these silos, to apply multi-disciplinary approaches, and embrace complex systems.

4) Introduce: Evidence informing policy should not be seen as only coming from the hard sciences, important as that input might be. A hard science approach neglects one important element, that people should be at the centre of policy making. We therefore need to understand more about their role, their needs and their expectations. To achieve this we must urgently introduce social sciences and humanities into the evidence base supplied to policy makers.

5) Add: Finally, we need to add knowledge management and sense-making. We need tools and competences to be able collect and collate the huge amount of scientific knowledge that is available today, to quality check and process that data and knowledge, and to select only the policy relevant part for onward transmission to policy makers. Targeted evidence is key to the successful scientific support to policy.

These enablers need to be fully understood and embraced. If we have these conditions, then we would have the framework to develop an approach to be able to provide more effective scientific evidence to inform policy. In my opinion this approach is based on four elements, which I refer to as TTFF:

  • Trust is the most important because we need to have trustful relations between scientists and policymakers. If there is no trust, there is no acceptance and if there is no acceptance, there is no mutual interaction.
  • Timing is vital. Scientific evidence should be provided as early as possible in the policy cycle, before fundamental policy positions are taken. It should not be provided at the end of the policy cycle when it is probably too late to influence anything. There is, of course, the specific case of scientific support to crises when speed of response is crucial.
  • Form the supply and demand for scientific evidence will be best served by bringing policy and science as close as possible. Scientists need to be an accepted part of the policy cycle, routinely and automatically consulted at all stages of the policy cycle, from the initial discussions about potential new policy through to the ex-post assessment of the policy impact. Scientists could then provide their input in formal reports, but also in informal discussions as policy is developed.
  • Format in order to provide policymakers with concise, visual input so that they can quickly understand the main messages arising from the scientific evidence and not have to plough through an extensive, highly technical report laden with extensive recommendations.

The science / policy interface is a complex place, with a large potential for misunderstanding and missed opportunities. It is also a crucial place, because scientific evidence is becoming ever increasingly essential in a world confronting large societal challenges. After some years of addressing this issue with the JRC, I believe that if we can better understand the framework conditions within which this process occurs it is possible to define an approach that stands a much better chance of success: the ‘five plus four ingredients’ could be such an approach.