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INGSA 2024: Science advisors of the world united

As INGSA is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary conference in Rwanda, Rémi Quirion and David Budtz Pedersen reflect on the role of research, knowledge, and expertise in advancing evidence-based solutions. From climate change to pandemics and artificial intelligence, experts and researchers are needed as advisors to governments.

At the global level, world leaders are calling for researchers to help tackle major societal challenges. Meanwhile, the information crisis rages. This calls for new initiatives and strengthened international cooperation.

In many ways, the global community is challenged by what appears to be a paradox. Not a day goes by without warning citizens about the threat of misinformation. New technologies like artificial intelligence can produce large quantities of fake images and texts and spread them across wide social networks. Populist leaders are known to distort facts and use half-truths to convince voters, tapping into emotions and identity. This creates confusion and distracts attention.

The World Economic Forum announced in its risk report at the beginning of 2024 that misinformation constitutes “the greatest threat to democracy to date.” Especially in a year with major elections such as the US presidential election and the European Parliament election, there is reason to be concerned. Pressure is mounting on social media platforms, where chatbots, influencers and alternative “experts” can easily mislead citizens with sensational but dubious claims.

But this is only one side of the story. Studies show that citizens worldwide are demanding more factual information than ever before. This is reflected in surveys where citizens signal a clear interest in high-quality editorial media and scientific advice in political decision-making. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the global community, it was medical authorities and expert communities the population turned to for consultation. Not social media.

An analysis conducted by the project “Knowledge & Democracy” in Denmark has recently shown that a large majority of citizens want researchers to play a more active role in public debates and engage more actively with society. What appears to be a paradox on the surface turns out to be a natural cause and effect. When citizens and politicians are challenged by an overabundance of misinformation, they seem to demand higher quality advice, communication and evidence for decision-making.

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It is beyond reasonable doubt that evidence-based policies and an increased presence of science advisors in public decision-making are worth the investment. Our response to the current information crisis should not be censorship or demand for authorized “public truths” circulated by authoritative state media agents. Instead, the response to the global information crisis must be to enhance information quality and integrity. One way to achieve this is by giving researchers and experts a more prominent role in political decision-making processes, not as decision-makers but as advisors.

Now one would think that mechanisms to promote researchers’ skills to communicate and advise policymakers would be a luxury problem in advanced democracies like Denmark and Quebec.

But that is far from the case.

Everywhere in the world, including South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, there is a need for evidence-based solutions and cooperation on scientific advice. This is especially true in areas such as vaccines, health, climate, energy, agriculture, and food. In these areas, evidence and research can save lives and ensure a fair and sustainable future. Whether the world’s governments listen to researchers and are informed by research-based knowledge can be the crucial determining factor when governments make decisions about climate action, environmental protection, economic growth, regulation of artificial intelligence, and preparation for new epidemics.

History speaks for itself. It took too long for the global community to mobilize knowledge and evidence to combat the HIV epidemic in the 1990s. It has taken too long to create the necessary awareness of the negative effects of tobacco and alcohol. And although everyone is exhausted from hearing about it, it is taking too long to implement effective climate policy measures, even if the scientific consensus has been established for years.

What these examples tell us is that not only do we need to produce more and better science, but our research environments must be better equipped to advise the world’s politicians and governments. The value of knowledge is only realized when it is translated and circulated among citizens, businesses, authorities, patients, and anyone else who may need to make decisions based on the most recent and reliable knowledge.

When politicians, government and citizens have access to research-based advice, the chance for more effective solutions is simply greater. Therefore, it is important that researchers engage with politicians. But also that governments become better at listening to independent experts and advisory committees that can help raise the quality of decision-making.

As a catalyst for this development, an international association for science advice practitioners was founded in 2014, known as the International Network of Governmental Science Advice (INGSA). Since its inception, the association has attracted 5000 members from 130 countries, making it a truly international science organization. Next month, the association will convene for its 10-year anniversary in Kigali, Rwanda for a conference that brings researchers, experts, government leaders, foundations, and universities together. The goal of the conference is to strengthen the global call for evidence-based interventions and policy solutions.

Specifically, we believe there is a need for world leaders to develop instruments and mechanisms that can enable scientists to better explain, translate, and communicate knowledge for the benefit of political and democratic debates in areas such as climate, biodiversity, digital democracy, and resource economics.

This applies everywhere. In Denmark, we have a high level of higher education, and our civil service is well-equipped to use scientific knowledge. In Quebec, we have gone a step further and institutionalized science advice with the office of Chief Scientist. But even though these structures are important, they are not sufficient. More work is needed to bring research into contact with society. It requires a political culture and calls for expertise as well as leaders who are not afraid of interacting with disruptive ideas but can see the potential in using the best science when difficult decisions need to be made.

Disclaimer: The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

Rémi Quirion is a professor and Chief Scientist of Québec. He is the President of the International Network of Governmental Science Advice (INGSA). David Budtz Pedersen is a professor of science communication at Aalborg University and an active INGSA member.

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