Science for Policy: Part I

  • Science for Policy: Part I

A good deal of the research we do at Te Pūnaha Matatini is intended to inform government policy. But it is one thing to do the research, and quite another to have that research influence policy. This is why there is a growing interest in the relationship between research and policy, although there are still many different points of view on what this relationship should, let alone does, take. Over the next month or so we are going to post a series of blogs that discuss some of the issues that face researchers who wish to influence policymakers and policymakers who wish to use research.

In this first post, I am going to review aspects of this issue that are touched on in my recent book, Silencing Science. There I discuss the reasons why so few scientists seem to be prepared to engage with the public on subjects that are politically contested (tl;dr? Try this article from the Education Review). There are lots of motivations for avoiding contentious debates in public, but one concern that scientists have is the risk of damaging their relationship with policymakers, with the consequent implications for funding and their job. Understanding this relationship is important if we want to improve the use of research in policy.

The model I used to analyse this relationship in Silencing Science was borrowed from Roger Pielke, based on the analysis in his book The Honest BrokerHe identifies four modes in which scientists can legitimately engage with policymakers: the pure scientist, the science arbiter, the issues advocate, and the honest broker of policy alternatives. As I wrote:

“The first two modes operate when a scientist provides advice on issues with policy options around which there is political consensus. The pure scientist simply summarises the state of knowledge in a particular field without reference to policy options. If a scientist is asked by a policy-maker to weigh in on the evidence for or against the effectiveness of a specific policy option, they adopt the role of science arbiter. In both cases, the scientist can claim to be sticking to the science, and can put themselves at arms length from the politics of the day.”

I would argue that these two modes dominate the approach that New Zealand scientists take to engaging with government. These are the silent scientists; they may engage behind the scenes with policy-makers, but they generally don’t make an effort to inform the public other than through very passive channels (e.g. see the Royal Society of New Zealand’s report on the water fluoridation). Pielke argues that these modes are appropriate when the policy implications are not politically divisive, but when policies have serious political ramifications, Pielke says that a different approach is needed.

From Silencing Science again:

“The situation is more complex for the science advisor when providing advice on policies that are politically divisive. In this case, Pielke argues that the roles of the pure scientist or the science arbiter are poor choices. By standing back from politics, Pielke says, scientists risk becoming pawns in a contested public debate. When scientists claim they are sticking to the science on hotly contested issues, their scientific authority can be hijacked by special interests.”

The recent inquiry into the Ministry of Primary Industries’ (MPI) failure to prosecute over illegal fish discards illustrates this. The inquiry found emails from an MPI senior manager in 2014 that revealed serious concerns about the way illegal fish discards were being monitored:

“discarding is a systemic failure of the current system and something we have not been able to get on top of from day 1 of the QMS [Quota Management System]. FM [Fisheries Management] can’t quantify the tonnages involved but we suspect they are significant to the point that they are impacting on stocks.”

Yet in May 2016, prior to the release of these emails, the same senior manager was quoted in an MPI press release saying:

“Science is the bedrock of our approach to fisheries management and New Zealand invests $22.5 million each year to ensure our fisheries science is up-to-date and accurate.”

This response makes me very uncomfortable. The Ministry is using the authority of science to deflect criticism and legitimate public scrutiny of the strengths and weaknesses of its management systems.

In this type of situation, Pielke suggests that scientists are better to approach the issue as an advocate, or an honest broker. The advocate takes sides in a policy debate, openly going beyond the science to grapple with the policy implications that may stem from the science. Indeed, the fisheries story and the inquiry itself were sparked by University of Auckland researcher Glenn Simmons arguing for much stronger monitoring of discards:

“… the future sustainability, traceability and certification of fisheries will depend on how government addresses the under-reporting problems, which have long been evident and which should be a cause of concern. Unreported catches and dumping not only undermine the sustainability of fisheries, but result in a suboptimal use of fishery resources and economic waste of valuable protein.”

Simmons’ role in the debate is not something that many scientists would relish. He has been subject to criticism by the Ministry and has his work critiqued in the media by his peers – while peer critique is a crucial part of science, scientists are not always comfortable when it takes place in the public eye. Nonetheless, advocates like Simmons play a crucial role in getting issues on the policy agenda.

The trick to pulling this off, according to Pielke, is to avoid using your science to mask a hidden agenda. An advocate must be explicit about where the science ends and values take over, acknowledging that scientific evidence alone is not sufficient in itself to make a policy decision.

The fourth option is that of the honest broker. In this role, the honest broker, like the advocate, acknowledges the gap between science and policy. Rather than trying to weigh in on a particular side of a policy debate, though, the honest broker attempts to consider a range of possible policy options, perhaps even using their expertise to introduce new solutions that were not yet on the table.

The honest broker is perhaps the most difficult stance for an individual researcher to attempt. Individuals are very rarely in a position where this is practical, as it requires the synthesis of the expertise of a wide range of colleagues and a diverse set of political viewpoints. In Silencing Science, I single out the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as an example of an honest broker, but the Commissioner is supported in that role by a large team and is in the position to take a significant amount of time and care in weighing in on issues. As Pielke has pointed out, honest brokers are almost never a single individual. More typically this is a role for committees or panels.

In New Zealand we have several bodies that might be in a position to take honest broking on. The Royal Society of New Zealand “produce papers, convene panels and hold events to provide expert advice to policy-makers and contribute to public debate.” Generally this advice is undertaken in the pure scientist or science arbiter mode: a recent advice paper on sugar and health, for instance, almost entirely avoids policy recommendations, focussing instead on summarising evidence linking sugar consumption and health, despite the intense debate around policy options such as sugar taxes and mandatory labelling.

The other significant body is the Network of Science Advisors chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. The terms of reference and membership of this group is not readily available to the public, so it is difficult to comment on the way they operate. We are going to be discussing this group in a later post, together with some recommendations about how we think it could be utilised more effectively.

While Pielke’s model is a useful entry point into this discussion, it does have a number of shortcomings. Over the next few weeks we’ll be discussing this further in the New Zealand context.

Shaun Hendy

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