Making sense of science for policy: a lively panel discussion at the University of Cambridge

Making sense of science for policy: a lively panel discussion at the University of Cambridge

On 30th January, a panel discussion on the ‘Making Sense of Science for Policy’ Evidence Review Report was hosted by the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE) at Magdalene College, Cambridge. 

The event held at Magdalene College, Cambridge University

Panellist 1: Professor Ole Petersen

Professor Ole Petersen opened the session, describing the Scientific Advice Mechanism and the role of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors (GCSA) and the SAPEA consortium.  He provided background on the Making Sense of Science topic, explaining that the GCSA had taken the step of reviewing the practice of science advice.  Its recommendations, contained in the report, Science Advice to European Policy in a Complex World, were partly informed by the evidence review undertaken by SAPEA.

Professor Ole Petersen

Panellist 2: Professor Susan Owens

Professor Susan Owens was one of two panellists who were members of the SAPEA working group responsible for producing the evidence review.  She explained how many policy issues in today’s world need science input. Sometimes this process is relatively straightforward but in many cases the issues are highly complex: facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and decisions may be urgent.  The emphasis of the Evidence Review Report is on these complex and uncertain situations.  The nexus between science, policy, politics and advice is a scholarly subject in its own right, and the Evidence Review Report has over 700 references, covering a very large body of work.  She set out some different ‘models’ (representations) of science advice.  The ‘linear-rational model’ is a common one, suggesting that scientists give disinterested advice that is gratefully received by policymakers – “give me the facts”, say politicians.  Another – the ‘strategic’ model – is one in which policymakers are driven by political rationality, using science selectively to legitimise decisions or, in some cases, delay them. A third representation – a ‘cognitive model’ – is one in which knowledge matters in policymaking in conjunction with many other factors, and advisors are agents of ‘policy learning’. In a fourth model, deriving mainly from Science and Technology Studies, science advice involves (the social and discursive) processes of ‘boundary work’ and ‘co-production’.  The richest accounts of science–policy interactions involve a combination of the third and fourth models, with the first two as ‘special cases’.  In essence, relationships between science and policy are complex and contingent: they depend on the nature of the policy issue, the receptiveness of the political environment, the tractability of the problem, and the skills of both science advisors and politicians. 

Professor Susan Owens

The Evidence Review Report discusses the needs of policymakers for advice, the functions of that advice, and the attributes of good advice.  Attributes of good advice include the need for:

  • Competent advisors and rigorous analysis (recognising that methods and concept of rigour differ widely across academic disciplines)
  • Cognitive diversity within advisory groups as a means to increase legitimacy and reduce bias, and to integrate different forms of knowledge
  • Consideration of the framing of policy issues
  • Honesty on both sides, especially about uncertainties in science and degrees of freedom in politics
  • Humility, including recognition amongst experts of the limits of their competence
  • Patience – not expecting too much in the short term or too little in the longer term.  Achieving impact may take years.

Panellist 3: Professor Andy Stirling

Professor Andy Stirling was the other panellist and also a member of the Working Group.  His focus was on the potential for improving the actual use of science advice and the importance of design principles, as covered in the Evidence Review Report. 

Professor Stirling asserted that science and facts do not speak for themselves, but rather that science has to be translated and interpreted.  There is no scientific method to determine this; they are craft skills. Like Professor Owens, he also emphasised the importance of framing and adopting different perspectives, especially in uncertain situations when not all parameters are known.  He also warned that ambiguity may increase when there is disagreement between different academic disciplines about a specific policy matter.  Errors at the interface between science and policy can also occur.  For example, the absence of evidence might be interpreted as absence of a policy problem, or experts and policymakers might be working hard to answer what is in fact the ‘wrong’ question.  The report also discusses the matter of so-called ‘wicked’ problems, where uncertainties are irreducible and, as scientific knowledge increases, so ignorance increases.  The nature of power within scientific disciplines is a vitally important factor, as there are hierarchies of power in science which can affect outcomes.  Professor Stirling highlighted the importance of transdisciplinarity, going beyond the boundaries of disciplines and out into wider society.  He finished by describing a set of design principles for science advice.  These include:

  • Trustworthiness, with trust as a reciprocal quality that includes trust in society at large
  • Independence
  • Transparency
  • Participation by wider society and inclusiveness
  • Precaution
  • Responsibility
  • Democracy and the capacity to challenge power. 

Professor Andy Stirling addressing the audience


A two-way discussion followed between the audience and the panellists. 

The first topic concerned the role of politicians in the co-production of science advice, in a world of headlines and fake news.  Professor Owens highlighted the reports by ALLEA in which she had been involved, on Truth, Trust and Expertise.  She acknowledged the challenge posed by the mass media and social media.  Professor Stirling questioned the assumption that science should be more assertive.  He felt that ‘less is more’ and that scientific institutions should not claim to represent the definitive truth.  Professor Petersen warned about a potential crisis in democracy, and that some policy issues relied on very clear facts, such as the case in favour of measles immunisation.  Professor Owens cautioned that in many risk controversies, ‘the facts’ presented by experts to provide reassurance do not always relate to the issues that people are actually worried about.  In such situations, it comes back to framing and what makes something controversial.  It is not about ‘scientists versus the people’, but rather coalitions with differing worldviews and values.

A second question concerned the coordination of science advice across Europe and the effect of Brexit.  Professor Petersen emphasised that the European Commission is willing to receive advice from the best source of expertise, wherever it is in the world.  British scientists were likely to continue to be in great demand, as the UK is a great country for science.  Professor Stirling’s view was that the UK sometimes took a somewhat disparaging view of non-UK/US science, for example, on the environment, genetic modification and chemicals. In reality, it is Europe that often has taken the lead.  He warned that a concentration of privilege in UK institutions may lead us down a blind alley.  

A third question asked about science advice as a top-down process and the consequential effects on the framing of an issue.  Professor Owens emphasised the importance of meaningful independence in advisory bodies, noting that the continuity of some bodies had been helpful in this respect because they could advise governments of varying political persuasions over lengthy periods of time and could be brave in challenging problem definitions and policy norms. She gave the example of the former UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, set up during a period of ‘environmental revolution’ in the early 1970s and surviving for 41 years.  The ability to iterate between specific problems and matters of principle is important, as well as being able, sometimes, to offer ‘disruptive’ advice.  Professor Stirling’s view was that the role of political mobilisation by people is critical.  Professor Owens agreed with him that change is based on knowledge, political action and shifting social norms, and these need to work together over time.  She emphasised that political movements matter, as does really good investigative journalism. Professor Petersen warned that journalism is not always as good as it should be, that newspapers are often trying to sell copies and entertain.  He also highlighted the tension between innovation and the precautionary principle.  Professor Stirling responded that precaution is about looking more broadly and considering alternatives on which way we should go. 

12th February 2020. For further information please contact

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