Unbiased advice required, please

PETER GLUCKMAN
Last updated 10:34 25/08/2014

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OPINION: I was dismayed to read a contention published on the Scoop website recently that a report on the science of water fluoridation by my office and the Royal Society of New Zealand included only pre-selected evidence to support a pre- determined view.

Worse, I was annoyed to see myself misquoted to create such misinformation. The review, in common with all other such unbiased scientific reviews, is robust and comprehensive, based on internationally accepted methods of scientific assessment and, itself, is subject to international peer review.

This irresponsible accusation, however, is a timely example of the challenges involved in providing science advice, and steering it through the noise and distraction of often isolated opinion, pre-determined bias and advocacy, to reach decision- makers in an independent format for consideration in the policy context.

How to negotiate this delicate, often hazardous path is just one question that will exercise science advisers and academics from more than 45 countries when they convene for the first time in Auckland this week to discuss the nexus between science advice and public policy. That they are meeting in New Zealand partly reflects growing interest in the science advice model that we are developing.

The growing recognition of the importance of the science-policy interaction has several origins. Since World War II, expanded scientific endeavour and advanced computational power have allowed us to collect and analyse datasets and systems of previously unimaginable complexity - from climate systems to social networks. Meanwhile, society now understands that science and technology can address many of today's most acute challenges, and we have become more dependent on, and critical of, what science can do for us.

Academically, policy formation is often described as a cycle from problem identification to analysis of options, decision-making, implementation and evaluation. In reality, while it contains all these elements, it involves rather more fuzzy interactions between policy makers and analysts, politicians, experts, lobby groups and the public. These trends and challenges often coalesce around the contentious, uncertain and complex questions for which politicians are expected to find simple answers - and quickly. But inevitably, the answers are anything but simple and require several tradeoffs.

In embracing complexity, science now expresses information in terms of probabilities, uncertainties and risk. Thus, public expectations and political imperatives can pressure scientists to produce unattainable levels of certainty.

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What we need to remember is that science alone does not make policy; at best it informs the policy process which includes fiscal, public opinion, diplomatic, electoral and ideological considerations.

These are not domains where science has any particular privilege. What science can and must do is summarise what is known and unknown, and the likely impact of different options. Science advising thus connects two very different worlds: policy- making and science.

When science advisers and academics meet this week, we shall start by clearly distinguishing science advice for public policy from the Ministry of Science and Innovation's own remit to advise on the public science funding system.

One important topic to be discussed will be the relative roles of formal and informal science advice. Matters that are relatively linear, or have straightforward policy implications, are best dealt with through formal scientific panels - like the fluoride report jointly commissioned by my office and the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Informal advice allows for scientific input at each stage in a policy process. Here, advisers may have greater value as scientific "sounding boards", as policy makers explore early ideas and develop policy, than in providing technical knowledge. In New Zealand, we are progressing the appointment of science advisers in a number of key ministries to provide formal and informal advice and to assist policy makers in using evidence. This network will also support thinking about how science can assist New Zealand's social, environmental and economic development; issues of assessing risk and promoting resilience, how science can help protect national interests; and in promoting better linkages between science and society.

Importantly, this week's conference will focus on how best to incorporate science into our most challenging policy contexts. These include providing advice in emergencies, dealing with inevitable conflicts between knowledge and ideology, enhancing the use of science from local body through to multinational levels, and finally how to better learn from each other the art of science advising.

New Zealand is an internationally recognised thought-leader on these matters, but there is still so much to learn.

- The proceedings of the meeting will be available at globalscienceadvice.org

- The Dominion Post

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