Scientific advice: How can policymakers best access and manage it?
At a recent workshop on the role of storytelling in science communication, one of the speakers, a Member of the European Parliament, stated that unless a paper he was given had a QR code to scan, he would simply not read it. He explained that the QR code allowed him to easily access and share the document at any time. His remark was particularly noteworthy and led us to seriously reflect on what policymakers themselves are looking for, how they access and manage scientific knowledge as well as what scientists can do to ensure that their evidence and expertise is being accessed in a successful and efficient manner.
In July, EuChemS attended the EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse, France, where we were selected to provide a poster. The subject chosen: ‘scientific advice, and how to harvest it in the best way’. We were therefore able to further develop our thoughts on this crucial issue and present them in a concise manner during the event.
The general view of scientific knowledge transfer is usually reflected in a linear manner: scientists are encouraged to share their knowledge, evidence, advice and expertise with decision-makers, so that the latter may make informed choices in their policymaking work. But this one-direction framework presents some very serious drawbacks. Not all knowledge is equally made, and not all sources of knowledge are capable of supporting successful transfers of knowledge.
Often overlooked, is the fact that a majority of scientists do not have the skills, the training nor the time to effectively communicate with decision-makers. Moreover, access to policymakers is not always straightforward. In turn, the role played by policymakers also needs to be reconsidered – should they not themselves be more proactive in acquiring scientific advice? The responsibility which is so often seen to lie on the shoulders of scientists alone, needs to be redistributed. In this respect, umbrella associations – such as EuChemS – play an important intermediary role, relaying pertinent scientific advice to decision-makers, whilst clarifying the impact of policies to scientists.
The following article aims to do two things. First, to examine the current framework under which scientific advice works – and its many drawbacks. Secondly, it will look at simple but practical steps that policymakers should be encouraged to take in order to ensure that they are correctly consulting stakeholders in what amounts to a level-playing field. By understanding the complexities and imbalances that exist, scientists can also better understand how to communicate their work and better comprehend the importance their knowledge plays in policy.
Knowledge, visibility and economic power
Over the years, transparency within the European institutions’ dealings has significantly improved. Lists of accredited stakeholders are usually available, and, as demonstrated by a report by Transparency International EU, showing that the European Commission had registered some 7000 stakeholder meetings between December 2014 and December 2015, it is possible to know how many times Commission officials met with stakeholders. Such transparency allows decision-makers, but also citizens, to view and better understand the landscape of involved stakeholders and who they were. It allows sounder judgements to be made on existing impartialities, nuances and imbalances. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the European Parliament. To this day, publishing details of meetings remains a ‘personal’ decision, with only a select percentage of the Parliament actively taking part in this transparency exercise.
But transparency does not mean equality. Taking a look at the website of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), you will find a very transparent and comprehensive list of accredited stakeholders. But look a little closer and you will very quickly see a substantial disparity between the different groups. This disparity is furthermore almost always translated in terms of economic weight. It goes without saying that the more economic weight a player has, the more easily their knowledge can be shared, communicated and emphasised.
The example shown in the graph demonstrates more precisely the difference between the weight of business and industry compared to other sources of advice and knowledge. But the difference is also observable within scientific circles. Reputable sources and institutions may tend to have financially strong foundations and greater manpower. But economic might should not imply quality expertise, even if it is often the case. Smaller sized institutions, associations or voluntary-based networks of scientists may produce excellent work, but will be limited in their capacity to share, advise as well as compete against differing opinions put forward by financially powerful players.
This is to say that the landscape from which decision-makers may receive scientific advice is varied, complex and although increasingly transparent, not always balanced. It also makes the weight of responsibility on scientists look unfair and shifts some of the accountability to decision-makers themselves as they are faced with a progressively transparent environment.
Sources of scientific advice
In addition to awareness of the relationship between economic power and knowledge transfer, there are many other elements decision-makers, scientists, and citizens have to take into account.
In a similar way to news sources, scientific advice needs to be increasingly approached in a critical manner. In an era of ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories, mistrust in expertise, manipulated stories, as well as an immeasurable pool of both true and pseudo-facts and information on the Internet, it is ever more difficult to distinguish genuine evidence from incorrect, misleading or politically tinted content. Examples of this abound if we but look at wildly conflicting views on vaccines, GMOs, climate change, pesticides, cancerogenics…
Basic questions should be asked – what is the source? Where has the scientific content been published? Is it a reputable source? Moreover, who is the author? Were they sponsored? If so, by whom and why? Are there conflicts of interest? Has their work been properly peer-reviewed?
These are lots of questions to think about, and decision-makers may be pressed for time. But, knowledge is power, and, to quote Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, or even Uncle Ben from Spider-Man, ‘‘with power comes great responsibility’’. Decision-makers, who are in a position to make important political, legal, and even ethical choices, have a duty to carefully consider their sources of knowledge and advice.
There are however pitfalls to consider when asking these questions. It can be limiting to only trust and consult work that is published in specific and well-known sources or from familiar scientists. A lot of important work is available from alternative sources, smaller publications, from up-and-coming scientists, and also from outside the major national hotspots of scientific output.
By acknowledging the framework in which knowledge transfer currently operates, and, by approaching received or sought after advice with a critical eye, decision-makers are able to make an important step forward in ensuring a level-playing field for scientists and stakeholders to share their expertise.
Are there any practical solutions?
In addition to encouraging ever more transparency, there are some practical solutions available that can help decision-makers best gather, manage and use scientific advice.
One option is the creation of databases which list, according to subjects of expertise for example, the different sources of scientific knowledge. Whilst lists of stakeholders exist, this is not yet a wide enough phenomenon, or yet an automatic one. Another solution lies in the development of methodologies or sets of procedures, which are clear and transparent and that are used when choosing which sources are consulted and which are not. Open consultations (a process that is often used by the European Commission but also European Agencies such as ECHA and EFSA) are useful tools. Nevertheless, not all stakeholders make use of them and it is not clear to what extent received feedback is truly considered, nor do they reflect real life meetings between policymakers and stakeholders.
Indeed, this last point raises another issue. Namely, what is the process by which decision-makers choose whom to consult and whom not to consult? These choices so far remain obscure and detrimental to an open and transparent acquisition of knowledge and scientific advice. Providing evidence that all relevant stakeholders were contacted would significantly improve how scientific advice is collected. Such procedures should in the future also apply on a wider level. High-Level Expert groups selected by the European institutions, such as for the Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP), of which EuChemS is a member, continue to be selected in an opaque manner. In the case of the OSPP, whose aim is to provide advice and views on enabling Open Science in Europe, the majority of stakeholders selected were strongly Open Science ‘aficionados’, to the detriment of affected players such as publishers.
Bridging science and policy
Efforts are being made however by policymakers to better acquire, manage and use scientific advice. An interesting example is that of the recently launched ‘EU media science hub’ created by the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA) – a project which aims to provide policymakers, scientists and the media easier access to scientific knowledge through databases, meetings and blogs. The partnering of Members of the European Parliament with scientists has enabled the latter to provide scientific advice in a personal and fruitful manner. Unfortunately, the scheme has almost only been implemented with politicians who are already interested in what the scientific community has to say, and who already use scientific knowledge in their work.
The ranks of science communicators are also growing, and training opportunities are increasingly available for scientists. But the access to policymakers remains a complicated business. In the specific example of chemistry, EuChemS is able to play a central role in facilitating such exchanges. Through consulting our Professional Networks and members, whose adherents are composed of experts in their respective specialisations, EuChemS is able to provide decision-makers at the European level with scientific advice and expert knowledge.
Scientists have a duty to share their advice and knowledge with decision-makers and citizens. In doing so, they ensure that policies are guided by evidence and expertise, and that citizens are kept informed and aware of things that affect them and the world around them. But not all scientists have the skills to do this, and the weight of such responsibility cannot lie on their shoulders alone. The responsibility needs to be more evenly shared across scientists, representative associations (whether local, national, European or international), and decision-makers. Policymakers need to be more proactive in examining the sources of knowledge around them. Taking into account the different sources of scientific knowledge, their various strengths and limitations, and properly evaluating received advice will enable sounder judgements in the future. We hope that through this article, scientists, citizens and policymakers are able to better comprehend the current framework and to see how some of these issues can be remedied.
Serious discussions between all involved players and concrete practical solutions are needed to ensure that successful policies are guided by clear and accessible evidence. A two-way process needs to be encouraged: decision-makers need better access to all the various sources providing knowledge (and done so in a transparent manner), whilst scientists need to be given better access to policymakers in order to share their quality-proven scientific work.
EuChemS Science Communication & Policy Officer