L'Aquila's prefecture after the 2009 earthquake.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Understanding the science policy landscape

Scientists are increasingly called upon to help governments shape policies and regulations in response to potential hazards and emerging crises. But to young scientists in particular, science policy can seem remote, opaque, and treacherous. There’s even a relatively new issue: potential legal liability. The 2009 L’Aquila earthquake led to the convictions of six Italian scientists and one public official with 6-year prison sentences (all the scientists have since been acquitted). But even for those willing to take on the (usually minimal) legal risk, there are so many bodies aiming to influence high-level policy, each with its own remit and degree of authority, that it can be hard to make sense of how it all works.

Although primarily directed at governments, a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) may help early-career scientists chart their way toward making an impact on science policy. Scientific Advice for Policy Making offers insight into the organization of the world’s science advisory structures, what it takes to step onto the scene, and the potential liabilities individual scientists may face.

If advisory scientists fail to appreciate the potential ethical, societal, economic or environmental impacts of their recommendations, this can result in their advice being ignored or rejected.

–OECD report

The science policy landscape

The OECD report describes all the main channels through which scientists can influence science policy. Within government, or with a government mandate, are deliberative bodies such as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the United States. PCAST and comparable entities in other countries exist to make strategy and policy recommendations to their governments on issues with a scientific component. Such councils are composed of scientists and representatives from industry and other parts of society, usually supported by an administrative staff. At another end of the spectrum lie professional societies, which are largely independent collectives of scientists that offer advisory opinions to governmental decision-makers on their own initiatives. Think tanks and similar entities may also gather scientists to assemble relevant information and make recommendations to, or lobby, various parts of governments.

These days, it is easy for scientists to use social and other media to offer opinions about policy issues. But doing so could be counterproductive, the report maintains. In emergency situations, in particular, media interest “can encourage alternative sources of scientific or expert information to publicise their own diagnoses or forecasts, which can differ significantly from the views of official/mandated scientific advisory structures,” the report says. While different scientific perspectives can be valuable, “[t]he diversity of solicited and unsolicited advice can be a challenge for decision-makers [and] create confusion in the public realm.”

The qualities of an advising scientist

The OECD report offers judgments about the competencies and qualities scientists need to influence policymaking. First, they need to be able to demonstrate expertise in one or several areas related to the issue they’re interested in. Next, they should be able to work well with experts from diverse disciplines and countries. “Care needs to be taken to involve scientists with a broad approach to facilitate discussions in such a way as to build consensus rather than to entrench differences,” the report says. 

This open-minded, consensus-seeking approach should extend to working with nonscientists, too. Today, “[s]cientists find themselves in a policy arena where the interests of a variety of stakeholders have to be balanced: scientists, policy and law makers, regulators, industry, [nongovernmental organizations], the public at large,” the report says. Scientists should therefore “be open to expert opinions coming from outside their selected group,” and recognize “that relevant expertise is often available outside established academic structures.”

Scientific advisers should be comfortable with uncertainty. “As a general rule, [they] should explicitly assess uncertainties and communicate and explain them to policy makers,” the report says. “In emergencies or on controversial issues, policy makers and the general public want quick answers from the scientific establishment, and researchers are under pressure to come up with clear-cut advice, even though the uncertainties are often high.”

Not all advising scientists become public faces; often the role of spokesperson is filled by the scientist who chaired the expert group or by a dedicated communication officer. But anyone who gets involved should be ready to see their work propelled into heated public debates. “[T]he results of scientific research are often provisional and sometimes heavily contested, either inside the research community and/or by other stakeholders,” the report says. Scientists are expected to “provide policy makers with advice from a fair, objective and apolitical standpoint,” but they must also consider the context. “If advisory scientists fail to appreciate the potential ethical, societal, economic or environmental impacts of their recommendations, this can result in their advice being ignored or rejected.”

Legal liability

How exposed scientists are to lawsuits is a complex issue that remains difficult to delineate, but it largely depends on where they work, the subjects they advise on, and the extent and directness of their participation in decision-making. Scientists on national science and technology councils, for example, are unlikely to be sued successfully because their advice is general and nonbinding and because their status as government officials usually confers some legal protection. Because they merely contribute an independent point of view and do not participate actively in the final political decision, academies and professional societies are also unlikely to be held legally liable.

Scientists in permanent or ad hoc scientific advisory structures, though, may have some legal exposure—especially if they work outside of government and lack clear legal status—because the advice they give often involves the assessment of risks or analysis of emerging issues.

Even so, most lawsuits are brought against advising bodies and not their individual members, because the responsibility of individual experts can be hard to establish, and institutions are seen as more likely to pay damages. Individual experts may nonetheless “be sued both under civil and criminal law when it can be demonstrated that they did not conduct their activity according to normal professional standards and/or if their behaviour neglected existing guidelines,” the report says.

Individual prosecutions are rare, but that can change quickly when new legal precedents are established—as currently in Italy. Following the L’Aquila case, “there are now more than 40 legal suits pending [in Italy] concerning the evaluation and management of risk for which the Civil Protection system is competent, with over a hundred experts indicted and now awaiting trial,” the report says. “Typically these cases involve experts and operators of institutions that are charged with failing to perform adequate risk assessments or misinforming plaintiffs of the potential risks associated with natural hazard events.”

Finding your way in

While some established scientists may find themselves called on to offer advice, early-career scientists may have to work to gain influence. “[O]ne’s area of expertise has to be known by the wider community so that a scientist will be more likely to be included in the discussion,” says Joshua Rosenbloom, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, who was involved in the preparation of early drafts of the OECD report during his time as a program director at the National Science Foundation. “But that doesn’t mean that one must wait patiently for an invitation. There are ways to advertise one’s expertise that will facilitate recognition,” such as publishing in high-impact journals, presenting at conferences, volunteering as a reviewer for journals and granting agencies, and having a presence on social media, Rosenbloom writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Young scientists should also seek early exposure to the policymaking process, Rosenbloom says. He recommends applying for a Science & Technology Policy Fellowship from AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers); these fellowships allow scientists to work on a wide array of science policy issues. “Young scientists should also become aware of other elements of the science advisory apparatus by paying attention to the activities of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy … and the National Academy of Sciences. Reading reports issued by these agencies and examining contextual information that is provided with them helps to understand how science policy is discussed,” he writes. Many universities also offer degree programs in science policy, and early-career scientists should explore opportunities to interact with scholars in such programs, he adds.

How successful young scientists will eventually be at influencing science policy depends, in large part, on how hard they’re willing to work to do so. “[S]cientific knowledge and expertise are increasingly central to good policy making and … it is important for talented scientists to get involved with the policy process,” Rosenbloom writes. “But to be successful in this arena requires not only being a good scientist, but a willingness to learn about how complex organizations work and how to be successful [in] communicating one’s ideas to those who lack detailed technical knowledge.”

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