Skip to content

Capacities for dealing with complex and uncertain evidence

12 Jun 2017

Arthur Petersen, Professor of Science, Technology & Public Policy at UCL reflects on building in-house capacity for dealing with uncertain evidence.

The recent CaSE report on the use of evidence in UK government policy-making provides strong arguments for the ever-increasing salience of scientific advice in government. It rightfully does not only focus on formal scientific advice structures, but also emphasises the importance of building capacity and expertise within government departments for both commissioning research and obtaining advice.

Taking my cue from the CaSE report, I propose that in order to implement recommendation 8 (‘Chief Scientific Advisers, in consultation with Heads of Profession, should monitor skills needs of the department and make recommendations for training’), government needs to learn from empirical studies done worldwide on the roles of civil servants and advisers in processes of scientific advice. In that way, training programmes can be set up that prepare policy-makers and their advisers for dealing with the complexity and uncertainty they are confronted with on a daily basis.

I here understand ‘scientific advice’ in a broad sense as ‘practices involving individuals, organisations and structures that mobilise natural and social scientific and engineering knowledge into public decision-making’. Surprisingly little empirical research had been conducted on these practices and on the actual roles that experts play in policy-making. The research that has been done on expert roles has remained mostly theoretical (as is argued for in this paper).

But we need not wait until more evidence on what constitutes good scientific advice comes in. We can already start with the set of necessary skills of recipients and providers of scientific advice that was developed in a panel and roundtable with practitioners from the International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA) organised by UCL STEaPP in Auckland (see also my recent inaugural lecture at UCL, held on 22 March 2017).

Dealing with complexity and uncertainty. Actors at the science–policy interface benefit from being able to take a systems perspective on problems that involve high complexity and uncertainty. A Guidance on Uncertainty Assessment and Communication may provide help. A real expert is someone who shows humility and is able to make explicit in useful ways that there are things that he or she does not know.

Communicating in different languages. On both sides of the science–policy interface, understanding is needed of respectively scientific and policy-making languages and processes. Here the ‘Top 20 things politicians need to know about science’ and the ‘Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making’ come in handy.

Management of expectations. Not all questions can be answered by science: there are limits to what science can deliver. So suppliers of evidence will need to manage the expectations of those who demand it. And the scientific enterprise must invest more in quality control (see Daniel Sarewitz’s ‘Saving science’ article).

Negotiating and influencing. Working at the science–policy interface is an art. There are often severe emotional challenges involved for advisers in negotiating with and influencing policy-makers and politicians while maintaining their scientific integrity. Science, politics and psychology meet in these ‘diplomatic’ encounters (see this paper for an example of this within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

‘Civics’ for scientists. In addressing policy-makers, politicians and the public, scientists need to be aware how their communication is perceived, how policy-making and law-making processes work, how international negotiations proceed. In short, they need to be trained in ‘civics’. At the upper end of the training scale, MPA and PhD/DPA programmes can provide these capacities.

Public education. Not everyone will become artisans who can easily navigate the science–policy interface. But it is important that people learn about the existence of this interface and some of its operations. Through public education we need to move away from “science as doctrine”, which seriously undermines the aspirations of “science as process” (see Andy Stirling’s ‘Science and democracy’ article).

Professional career paths. Ideally, we prepare practitioners for careers at the science–policy interface, so that they can switch between science and policy, and can deal with all the mentioned challenges at this interface. Support for different career paths that make this possible is needed. The best ways to do this are still unknown, but increasing the opportunities for building one’s own capacities will be a necessary step.

Related articles

Lifting the lid on how Spending Reviews work
24 October 2021

Read our latest piece from Isobel Stephen, Executive Director, Strategy, Performance and Engagement at UKRI

Going Viral: leveraging UK science to tackle a pandemic
19 May 2021

Sarion Bowers, Head of Policy at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, on the Institute’s role in tackling the Covid pandemic and what we can learn for the future.

Reflections on elections (and other events)
06 January 2021

At the end of his six year term as CaSE Chair, Professor Graeme Reid looks back on what the organisation has achieved and the challenges that still lie ahead.

Influencing the Spending Review; a view from the inside
09 October 2018

Jeremy Clayton is a member of the CaSE Board of Directors and was previously BIS Director responsible for research funding and policy during the Coalition Government. As the 2019 Spending Review approaches, he reflects on how best to influence key decision-makers.