A successful workshop at the Royal Irish Academy on Making Sense of Science for Policy

A successful workshop at the Royal Irish Academy on Making Sense of Science for Policy

On 11th February, a well-attended workshop took place at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, to discuss the recent Making Sense of Science for Policy report and its implications for policymaking at European and national level. 

Speakers at the workshop included Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer (Chair of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors); Professor Ole Petersen (Vice-President, Academia Europaea); Professor Maria Baghramian (SAPEA Working Group) and Professor Peter Halligan (Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales).

From left to right: Professor Peter Halligan, Dr Cliona Murphy, Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Professor Maria Baghramian, Professor Peter Kennedy and Professor Ole Petersen

Session 1: The European perspective

Panellist 1: Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Chair of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors

Professor Heuer introduced the Scientific Advice Mechanism and the work of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors.  The Scientific Advice Mechanism was set up to provide independent and transparent scientific advice to the European Commission.  The Group of Chief Scientific Advisors provides scientific advice to policymakers, based on the best available evidence.  The SAPEA consortium undertakes evidence reviews that inform the Scientific Opinion of the Advisors.  The benefit of such a system is that it works in a consultative way and provides a dual-layer system.

Panellist 2: Professor Ole Petersen, SAPEA

Professor Petersen presented the role of the SAPEA consortium within the Scientific Advice Mechanism.  SAPEA provides evidence, analysis and policy options.  It is completely independent but works in close cooperation with the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors and the secretariat at the European Commission.  European academies are encouraged to get actively involved with SAPEA and can do so in a number of ways, for example, by nominating Fellows for working groups, hosting meetings and outreach events.

Panellist 3: Professor Maria Baghramian, University College Dublin, SAPEA Working Group

Professor Baghramian presented some of the findings from the Making Sense of Science Evidence Review Report.  Science advice is an essential means by which to facilitate decision-making in a technologically and economically complex society.  EU policies seek to address largescale, pressing and complex issues, such as climate change, artificial intelligence and biodiversity.  The science behind these issues is complex and uncertain.  Complex policy issues require a multidisciplinary approach that also adds to the complexity of the science advice provided.  Science is a vitally important component of policymaking, even if it does not have the ultimate authority in policy decisions.  Policy can only be evidence-informed, rather than evidence-based, because of the variety of policy interfaces, which cover more than science alone.  Good science respects a strong distinction between facts and values and the report takes a pragmatic view of science.  Science attempts to provide the ‘best explanation possible’ in a given area of enquiry.  What should we expect from good expert advice?

  • Trustworthiness
  • Independence
  • Transparency i.e. knowing what the evidence base is that informs it
  • Inclusiveness
  • Rigour
  • Precaution, or the ‘least harm’ principle
  • Responsibility

Panellist 4: Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Chair, Group of Chief Scientific Advisors

Professor Heuer’s second presentation was on the Group of Chief Scientific Advisor’s report, Scientific Advice to European Policy in a Complex World.  The key messages of the report include:

  • It is very important to clarify the boundaries between science, science advice and politics
  • Engage from the earliest stage with policymakers, particularly in designing the question and scoping
  • Refine the approach to conflicts of interest
  • Analyse, assess and communicate uncertainties and diverging scientific views
  • Explain the path from evidence to advice
  • Address uncertainties, gaps and limitations in the available knowledge and communicate these in the least ambiguous and most comprehensive way possible

Panellist 5: Professor Peter Halligan, Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales

The explosion, availability and authority of knowledge and the pace of innovation, provides both an opportunity and a challenge for society and governments.  Science advice ecosystems worldwide adopt different models and approaches, reflecting different political cultures.  The UK’s science advisory system is dependent on a whole interplay of different actors, such as universities, academies, government scientists and others.  The UK has a network of chief scientific advisors that covers the different parts of government and the devolved administrations, in addition to the research councils.  Professor Halligan is part of the Welsh Government Office for Science, which also includes a Science and Innovation Advisory Council.  Most evidence tends not to be sought through formally commissioned reports.  He provided a series of examples and case studies from Wales to illustrate science advice in action.  In conclusion, Professor Halligan provided a series of insights into the nature of science advice, which is a growing academic field in its own right.  Most importantly, chief scientific advisers should act as brokers, rather than advocates. 


Questions and answers covered the following:

  • Q. Payment for science advice
  • A. Neither the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors nor members of the SAPEA Working Group are paid for their work
  • Q. Cooperation between generalists and specialists
  • A. Many civil servants are generalists, so science advice has to be ‘translated’ into easily understandable language.
  • Q. The involvement of stakeholders
  • A. The next project may look at a mini citizen forum
  • Q. The apparent challenge of getting researchers to work on projects of interest to policymakers
  • A. If an evidence review points to gaps in knowledge, who should respond to this?
  • Q. The risk of merely telling government what is wants to hear
  • A. Advisers should be able to challenge policy questions and to be involved in designing those questions

Session 2: The Irish perspective

The second session was dedicated to looking at science advice within the context of the Republic of Ireland.  Speakers included:

Media interest

14th February 2020. For further information please contact AECarduffHub@cardiff.ac.uk
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