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Science advice for government

That science has contributed to the advancement of society cannot be overemphasized. Much of the applications of science that has resulted in innovations (e.g. gadgets) or a better quality of life (e.g. reducing the child and maternal deaths, extending the human lifespan) were due to governments creating and adopting the right policies. These policies encouraged the application of science and technology to ensure the best quality of outcomes for society.

Government sets the environment that enables scientific research. It does this by directly funding research and rewarding innovation. Governments mainly do these through the research universities. While the business sector also contributes to innovation, government may provide tax incentives as policy to promote innovation.

Who sets the research priorities? In most democratic governments, the scientific community and the government through various forums do these. Most governments have a science ministry headed by a cabinet minister. The science minister advises the President or Prime Minister on the priorities of research as advised by the science community. Furthermore, most countries have a national academy of science, which provides another venue for advice and consensus.

The complexity of problems that face society and which need scientific solutions, existing advisory structures may be hard pressed. In a world where climate change can result in wide scale disasters or disease pandemics, scientists are called to provide solutions. However the scientific theoretical basis of the solutions often lack the integrative aspect that would ensure good outcomes. The solutions themselves have uncertainties in outcome that must be properly managed.

Scientists will then have to work with government, various stakeholders and, the public to come up with a consensus on how the applies the science. The accuracy of scientific results, while extremely important is not the only basis for a policy decision. What are equally important are the quality outcomes. When quality outcomes are the goal, scientists and policymakers must be aware of the value-laden nature of scientific advice. Science does not exist outside a social context.

This what is called “post normal science”. When the problems are complex, the stakes are high and the outcomes are uncertain, science provides the empirical information, the various sectors of society provide the social context and application and the government enables the quality outcomes through right policy decisions. This is done in what is called as the science-policy nexus.

While this sounds good in theory, it is complex in practice. As Professor Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand said,” Scientists are good at identifying the problems but aren’t in finding workable solutions”. Why?  The cultures of the science community, bureaucracy and government as well as the public are different. Scientists have a hard time communicating their science to the policymakers and the policymakers have a hard time understanding it. There must be a common understanding of science and technology to ensure good outcomes. This is where science communication and science education come into the picture. In post normal science, there is a large emphasis on science communication and science education. A science literate society will be able to meet the challenges of complex problems that require science but not science alone. And so a science literate society is strongly educated not only in the natural sciences, but also in the arts and humanities and the social sciences. One cannot discount liberal education and schools and universities must place a high premium on this.

Effective science advice for government therefore requires a restructuring of the traditional venues for science and government interaction. Some governments have created an office for government science advice that is under the President/Prime Minister and is independent from the ministry of science and sometimes from the national academy of science. The logic behind this is that while the minister of science helps government sets priorities, it has a political mandate. The government science advisor/s is/are more politically independent and provides a range of scientific options to inform policy. These options are identified through wide scale consultations from the science community, stakeholders and the public. The government is therefore obliged to listen to the widest range of advice and not just from the science community, bureaucracy or the technocrats.

A process like this would have minimized the political and policy fallout on the mass dengue vaccination program of the previous Philippines government. The administration of President Benigno Aquino III decided to purchase Sanofi’s Dengvaxx vaccine. The government wanted a good quality outcome, immunizing a large segment of the at risk population. While the risks of using the vaccine had been known to the scientific community through peer reviewed studies, it appears that  the policy and decision makers did not properly consider this science informed advice. Furthermore, as in any scientific study, reanalysis of the existing data suggested that the advisory of using the vaccine be modified. This is where the WHO based its precautionary advice. The lack of proper science communication of the risks by the vaccine manufacturer, health department and the science community has fueled unwarranted speculation and politicking that may damage the credibility of the science community, medical practitioners and the health department. This will not result in good public health outcomes in a society where vaccination is still viewed with suspicion.

Science advice is therefore important now more than it was. We cannot afford not to ignore the importance of science informed advice for government and the public.


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