Science advice to the government

The first issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution in 2016 has a section that I’ve not seen before: Science & Society. And its debut article is on an issue of emerging interest to me.

Hutchings & Stenseth first argue that science advice is different from science-based advocacy:

Science-based advocacy differs from science advice. Advocacy reflects the interests of those providing information at the expense of the breadth of peer-reviewed science on which the information is based. Advocates selectively frame or shape advice with the intention of favouring one policy outcome over another. Although the advocate might base their perspective on science, that perspective is affected by how the advice might be used by decision-makers. Advocacy is not always readily detectable and, in many cases, individuals are not as vigilant as they should be as to whether they are science-based advocates.

Then they go on to opine that an office of a Chief Science Advisor (CSA) to the head of government is, from their experience in various government advisory models, the most optimal. Other models they described include government scientists (within the employment of government bodies), science & tech committees convened to advise at the ministry level or below (e.g. statutory boards; versus directly to the head of government or the whole cabinet as what an appointed CSA would do), and national academies.

On personal preference, I distrust relying on a single individual co-opted into the fold of quasi-government to influence the top of government. Such a post is as inherently political as many of the other options, only more powerful. Also, how can a single scientist have the breadth to understand and represent the whole range of scientific fields? Sure, you can give him/her an office with the resources to pool the expertise all the nation’s scientists, but the eventual perspective and communication of that perspective is coloured by one’s background. Put an environmental scientist on top and suddenly there is an agenda for environmental protection. Remove the environmental scientist and the sails swing another way with the wind.

As described in the article, all other models have their pros and cons too. It is all too tempting for government agencies to channel resources to in-house government scientists rather than commission external researchers. You can gag your employee if you don’t like the results, but those high-and-mighty university academics are out of control!

Succumbing to such a temptation is unfortunate: universities and research institutions are designed for cost-effectiveness in research because of the high concentration and sharing of quality resources and talent at a single place. Imagine a government research agency having to subscribe to the same range of journals just to get on top of the literature in a particular topic, which is crucial in doing proper science. You might as well have outsourced the same research to the universities who already have subscribed the full range of library access.

The problem is in being thin-skinned: senior management see the possibility of embarrassment when their decisions are criticised. But why not see it the other way: that your decisions will be more defensible, robust, and eventually win support of all sides if you had relied on the best science possible from the beginning?

Unfortunately, I think Asian governments (and societies) are particularly thin-skinned. This is why, I think, policy recommendations by Western scientists and NGOs don’t make as much of an impact on environmental/social issues in Asia as they would like to. Asian (Singaporean?) governments don’t like to be told openly that they should be doing something else, while Western science has become accustomed to doing that.

All the more it is necessary that science engagement happens right from the beginning, as a partnership, rather than when the decisions have all been made and any dissenting opinions at the end will be taken as a potential embarrassment rather than as a learning opportunity.

Then on the other hand, political use of scientists to defend policies and management post hoc is another problem. This can happen, for example, with science advisory committees where experts and “scientists” are selected carefully behind closed doors. Some may not be chosen cos they are the best (or even real) scientists, but because they have inflated perceptions of their own expertise. Post hoc, meaning that their advice is only called in after the decisions are made or when convenient, as a rubber stamp. If cleverly manipulated, the pseudo-experts actually think they’re being consulted. Or some members may have powerful incentives to go meekly along to keep the relationships that support their research with government funding.

What about national academies? I don’t really know how these work, because national science academies don’t feature very much in my experience in Singapore. I feel these might have a role to play, if they were strong.

Following the ideas of check-and-balance in governance, I think it’s best to have an “intact ecosystem” of institutionalised science advice to the government. Each of the above models have a niche that they best serve. I strongly believe that, instead of attempting to do all the research themselves, government scientists should play the role of facilitator when government agencies outsource research needs to academics; but rather than seen as just out-sourcing, this should be seen as how they collaborate. On the other hand, government researchers are in the best position to work on basic and applied research that is needed locally, but is not sexy enough for academics with their KPIs focused on publishable, high-impact science. Any government body at any hierarchical level that needs to make use of science or tech should have advisory committees whose composition is appropriately chosen according to transparent criteria; membership on the more powerful committees need proper procedures for nomination, perhaps from the national science academies–the most powerful kind of advisory position being the CSA. National academies should become strong enough to convene or support working groups to produce critique of existing government positions on science & tech issues.

But I’m kind of wet behind the ears myself to be making such opinions.

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