08 November 2014

Opinion: Research tools can bridge science and policy

Options Magazine Winter 2014/15: Anne Glover, the first Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, outlines how we can get better at linking science to policy, and vice versa.

Anne Glover Photo © European Union

Anne Glover

Today’s governments are facing far more complex global challenges than their predecessors—from climate change, to Ebola, to crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. Policymakers need to be more international in their outlook and to consider how all the various policy sectors interact with and impact each other.

Scientists can shed valuable light on such issues. But the links between science and policy—and vice versa—need to be improved if we are to get the best outcomes.

The good news is that governments globally are now much more committed to evidence-based rather than ideology led policymaking. In many areas evidence-based policymaking is working very well. For example, when the European Commission considers a new policy, say, on forests, it will consult scientists and the scientific literature to examine the evidence and analyze possible impacts on climate change. This process frequently leads to improvements to new policy proposals.

However, while conducting scientifically rigorous impact assessments of legislation on a global problem can help a government minimize the negative side effects of policies or regulatory failure, I have also seen scientific evidence being used badly.

For instance, independent and reliable scientific research shows that introducing genetically modified (GM) crops could, if used judiciously, improve agricultural productivity, reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides, and enhance the nutritional value of some crops as well as making them more climate change resistant. It also shows that GM technology poses no more risk than any other selective plant-breeding techniques already in use. Yet both supporters and opponents of GM crops pick and choose evidence to support their own arguments.

This selective use of evidence (by both sides) generates mistrust in science, making scientists appear to be in conflict. Even worse, it clouds the debate by focusing on whether or which research findings are reliable, when it would be more honest to say that the real reasons
behind not adopting GM crops are ideological, ethical, cultural, or something else entirely.

Therefore, bringing greater transparency to the process of evidence‑based policymaking is key to making wise policy decisions that tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century. One aspect of transparency is to say where evidence comes from—is it anecdotal or is it from a peer-reviewed journal, for instance? Transparency is needed to explain choices and trade‑offs made when setting policies.

Research tools can help achieve this transparency. Scientifically developed models and scenarios allow decision makers to experiment with different policies, and see the likely outcomes. If the models are sufficiently sophisticated and have been put together with a systematic and analytical approach, they also show the policymaker the implications across the huge range of factors that the new policy may affect. And if provided to all the main parties involved in negotiating the new policies, the research tools can also help build consensus.


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Last edited: 21 November 2014

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