INGSA Recognised at World Science Forum

On November 4th 2015 in the margins of the 7th Word Science Forum (WSF) held in Budapest Hungary, INGSA convened a seminar of practitioners and thought leaders in science advice to governments to discuss an identified challenge in science advice practice: the provision of science advice at the international level. The seminar was an opportunity to explore and suggest solutions to reconciling the inherent tension that often arises between scientific consensus and national interests. Speakers were invited to make short remarks or present slides, guided by the following questions:

  • Are there principles of science advice that are transposable across geopolitical boundaries?
  • Would such principles be applicable to multi-national advisory structures? What are the challenges that arise and how are these met?
  • Are there inherent limits to science-based advice, given that jurisdictional interests will inevitably involve values-based policy discussions?
  • Can we identify the point at which jurisdictional interests take precedence? Is it possible to determine standards and thresholds where scientific input can over (or be trumped by) local contexts?

The impact of the seminar and of OECD, ICSU and INGSA efforts more broadly, was visible in the World Science Forum Declaration. Clause 4 of the this declaration specifically calls for science advice to inform policy making.

Summary of Seminar Presentations

The seminar opened with an address by Sir Peter Gluckman that outlined a typology of science advice: formal and deliberative advice of committees and panels; informal advice of experts departmental science advisors or chief science advisors; and the science advice required in emergency situations.  Sir Peter also underlined practical and epistemological issues associated with giving science advice in a number of distinctive situations, including in the context of: acute national or pan-regional emergencies; chronic issues and developing trends; global trade discussions; international instruments (SDGs, International conventions), for instance. This opening discussion served to frame the issues in science advice at the international level, distinguishing these from the provision of science advice within a single jurisdiction.


The next presenter was Dr Carthage Smith, the Lead coordinator of the OECD Global Science Forum, which this year released a paper on the roles and responsibilities of public scientists and expert bodies in providing science-based advice to policy makers. Slides from this presentation can be accessed here.

Tokyo University

This presentation was followed by Tateo Arimoto, professor of Science and Technology Policy at Tokyo University’s Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Professor Arimoto provided an overview of the highly complex landscape of organisations providing science advice at the international level.


UNESCO was represented in the seminar by Dr Flavia Schlegel, Assistant Director General for Natural Sciences. Dr Schlegel welcomed the creation of INGSA and remarked that 2015 seems to have become a pivotal point for science advice, citing the Sendai Framework, COP21, and the Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030 all grounded in, and requiring, sound scientific advice in order to advance successfully, with the 2030 agenda providing a clear mandate and framework for the application of science advice internationally. Dr Schlegel demonstrated how UNESCO both employs and offers science advice at the international level through its network of 195 member states and their associated scientific bodies.  UNESCO aims to build, develop and mobilise the capacity to co-produce, share and apply science in member states for government, parliament and civil society issues. UNESCO is a global leader in covening and shaping discussions at the science policy interface and supports assessments that identify gaps to improve overall functioning of public science systems. Most recently, UNESCO launched its 2015 Global Science Report. UNESCO’s programmes on oceans, biodiversity and disaster risk reduction for instance, can provide a neutral platform for global science-based discussions in areas that are values-rich and often politically contentious.


Dr Martin Kowarsch of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change presented results of his recent work that critically analyses the global scientific assessment processes such as the IPCC. There are 129 global environmental assessments currently underway and the issue was raised that this is a costly and time consuming exercise, which is reason enough for critical analysis. The Mercator Research Institute has brought together expertise in STS, Policy Science, Philosophy, Policy Analysis to undertake such a study, results of which have recently appeared in Nature Climate Change.

In analysing the IPCC process and impact, Kowarsch found a number of key challenges inherent to such processes. These include:  policy makers adopting the language of science; the policy complexity of multiple scales, timeframes, objectives and jurisdictional interests; the sophisticated use of social science to understand the consequences of policy options; overcoming the tradeoff between regional balance and scientific excellence, which requires a long term commitment to building capacity in developing countries; the tradeoff that exists between ‘buy in’ and control by national governments; and the increasing need for co-designed processes to develop what Kowarsch calls a ‘cartography of policy pathways’.  Co-designed solutions are costly and painful, but in the context of climate change, Kowarsch argues, there is no other way.


Kowarsch’s position that science advice on complex and contentious issues be undertaken through diffuse processes and collaborative mechanisms is, in some ways, echoed in the new Science Advice Mechanism (SAM) of the European Commission. Designed to replace the position of Science Advisor to the President, a post that was disestablished in February 2014, the new SAM was presented by Dr Johannes Klumpers of DG Research in the EC, which is responsible for establishing the process to recruit the members of SAM.  The members of the SAM have since been announced. It was emphasised that the SAM will work with other Commission services and with the EC Joint Research Centers (JRC) in order to complement existing advisory bodies across sectors, while remaining independent of the Commission.


The final formal intervention of the seminar was from the President of ICSU, Professor Gordon McBean, who advocated for a greater connection between what has been called ‘science for policy’ and ‘policy for science’ at the interface of science and policy making. While these domains are necessarily treated separately, Professor McBean argued that it is increasingly important to design and enable national science systems to better inform public policy, citing examples such as ICSU’s Future Earth programme.

Seminar Discussion

Following the series of short formal statements by panellists, the floor was open to discussion, moderated by Professor James Wilsdon of the University of Sussex and editor of the Guardian Newspaper’s Science Policy blog entitled “Political Science”.

Sir Peter Gluckman noted that the issues for which policy makers most need advice are not the easy and uncontentious ones. Rather, they are the intractable and complex problems, with high public values components and for which the science itself is often rapidly evolving.  Sir Peter echoed the importance of co-designing of advisory processes so that both public and political trust can be maintained. He also underlined the need for those involved in science advising to foresight the contentious issues to be ready to respond or to offer advice proactively.

Dr. Vaughan Turekian, Science Adviser to the US Secretary of State emphasised the need to operate on two separate time scales in the policy context:  immediate and horizon thinking.  The role of science advisors should include preparation for issues on the 5-6 year time horizon, but should avoid the longer (30 year) timescale that can be typical of scientific discourse.  Policy makers work primarily in immediacies.

Dr David Mair of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre added that, in addition to being attentive to the timeframes typical of policy making, scientists playing the brokering role of advising also need to become accustomed to working across disciplines Policy work demands an integrated perspective, therefore, to be relevant to policy, science advice must be interdisciplinary.

There was some discussion of how best to align science advisory mechanisms across international and borders and between national and international bodies, when there is such a variety of models currently employed across these contexts. Dr Virginia Murray Co-Chair of the UNISDR Scientific and technical advisory group on disaster risk reduction endorsed the notion of a single national focal point for scientific and technical advice in the context of emergencies, regardless of whether the national advisory system is based on a more diffuse model.  She also pointed to recently established Centre for Policy Research of United Nations University which is undertaking some promising work in streamlining advisory models and practices.

On the same issue, Dr Flavia Schlegel of UNESCO suggested that  even if a science advice system is working well nationally, its success must also  be seen in a global context where it must be connected internationally with counterparts.  This is because all of the issues the issues most requiring sound science advice extend beyond borders.