Domain Three: Science in Policy and Public Discourse

Science creates knowledge tested against reality, an essential contribution to public discourse and to policy-making at every level of governance, and one that has never been more urgent.

💾 Download the full working papers for projects in Domain Three

It is vital to develop more effective science-policy interfaces, based on enhanced competencies within science and policy communities, and informed by relationships of trust. These interactions are challenged by a policy environment that tends to favour short-term responses and by a setting in which international norms are increasingly disrupted.

At the same time, interest groups increasingly question the credibility and authority of scientific evidence and the trust that science should be afforded. Notwithstanding its democratic potential, the World Wide Web has become a powerful enabler of ‘alternative facts’ in a so-called ‘post-truth society’. It is imperative to advance the value of science as a global good and ensure its better use in policy decisions and public discourse.

Our three projects relating to Science in Policy and Public Discourse appear below.

3.1 Science-policy interfaces at the global level

(Project in progress)

Science is critical to virtually every policy decision at every level of governance. Policy-making is inevitably going to achieve better outcomes when it is informed by robustly developed knowledge from the natural, social or data sciences. Yet, despite widespread agreement on the need to ensure that all policy decisions are informed by the best available scientific evidence, the potential contribution of science to policy-making could be much greater than it is today.

At the global level, and particularly within the UN system, more impactful science-policy engagement will require effective coordination between a growing range of interface mechanisms, which operate within and between different agencies and with different mandates, modes of engagement and cultures of decision-making. Given that global policy-making is ultimately dependent on endorsement from member states, it is also essential to connect efforts to advance evidence-informed policy-making at the national level to those undertaken internationally. The critical role of science in addressing virtually every global issue must be continually reinforced through coordination between and across these levels.

Amplifying the visibility and voice of the international scientific community within the UN and other global policy forums will require a long-term vision of the role of science in global policy. This must be based on an understanding of the complex political dynamics and policy processes at the global level and of the most effective pathways to influence for science, formal and informal.

Anticipated impact

A strengthened mandate for science in global policy, supported by effective and coordinated science-policy interface mechanisms and based on recognition of the ISC as the global go-to for independent, integrated scientific expertise, input and advice.

Next steps

The ISC will prepare two strategy papers to be published by the end of 2019: a white paper on science in and for the United Nations system, and a paper on opportunities for engagement in other global policy fora. Both papers will draw on the experience and expertise of ISC members and partners at the interface between science and policy, including the Council’s International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), and will make recommendations for ISC actions to achieve increased impact in this arena.


3.2 The public value of science

(Project for development)

The scientific community has an obligation to explain and champion the role of science in all decisions that affect society. Even when the science is complex and contradicts popularly held ideas, it can help in framing the issues, explaining complexity and proposing possible options.

Levels of public trust in science remain relatively high. But the political and media environment is increasingly fragmented and polarized, and trust in institutions is declining. This means that scientific knowledge appears to have a diminishing influence on public opinion. This trend is exacerbated by pervasive digital technologies and social media, which enable the widespread dissemination of misleading and biased information. This in turn feeds new expressions of science denialism, casts doubt on the need for scientific understanding and interpretation, and threatens evidence-informed decision-making. This problem affects all scientific fields, all types of research, and all scientific communities around the world. It is naturally of great concern, as our future health and survival depend on the adoption of policies that have a sound scientific basis.

Merely repeating scientific results and opinions, either more clearly or more loudly, is not the way to success. Instead, direct engagement is needed with those outside the scientific community, and a deeper understanding of how people receive and respond to messages, both individually and collectively.

Anticipated impact

Increased awareness amongst wider publics, policymakers and decision-makers of science as a global public good.

Next steps

The ISC will convene an international expert working group to frame these issues, identify evidence to inform the strategies that the ISC should adopt, and prepare by mid-2020 a plan for delivering a long-term global campaign on the public value of science.

Its initial outputs could include discussion papers for ISC members and partners on steps that the scientific community can take to counteract disinformation, and develop skills in critical thinking and analysis. This might involve rethinking the communication of science to non-scientists. These actions should lead to the development of new resources to help the ISC and its members amplify their existing work, and participate in a new global campaign profiling the value and importance of science.


3.3 Science in the private sector

(Project for development)

The private sector’s share of global science and innovation is growing, and is now estimated to represent approximately 70 per cent of global expenditure on science. At the same time, publicly funded researchers are increasingly encouraged to form partnerships with the private sector and to undertake research that will support private priorities, whilst the commercialization of academic research is increasingly regarded by government as a priority for universities.

This increasingly mixed research economy poses a number of dilemmas. Knowledge freely released into the public domain is by definition a public good. What are the pathways of public and private goods in the current world economy? Whilst peer review and the open publication of evidence are the standard routes by which scientific rigour has been maintained for publicly funded science, both are lacking in many areas of privately funded science.

The incentives and the institutions that are designed to generate trust and confidence in public science are not necessarily present in the private sector. Whilst financial risk to a company’s investment may provide an incentive for strong internal peer review, the risk to the public from private-sector innovation would be expected to be covered by a regulator, if indeed effective regulation is imposed. There are differing norms for transparency, such as the role of the sponsor in experimental design, material provision, editorial roles, access to data and IP rights. In general, publics are less trustful of private sector science, in part because of major scandals, and in part because of the private interest in minimal regulation. In order to preserve trust in science, it is essential that public and private sector scientists apply similar ethical standards to those prevalent in the public sector.

Anticipated impact

Increased understanding and agreement on the norms of responsible conduct, transparency and ethical standards that are needed to protect science as a global good in both the public and private sectors.

Next steps

The ISC will establish an expert working group to explore issues around trust in private sector science, and to prepare a discussion paper for consultation with members and other stakeholders. This would build on preliminary work on how private sector science is used in policy settings, carried out in 2018 by ISC-INGSA. Over the longer term, a forum will be explored for engagement between the science community represented by the ISC, and private sector stakeholders including both scientists and executives.

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