Summary of the IAP Conference on Science Advice

Policy for Science
The triennial IAP Conference – the 2016 edition of which focused on the theme of ‘Science Advice’ – took place on 28 February to 1 March in Hermanus, South Africa

The triennial IAP Conference – the 2016 edition of which focused on the theme of ‘Science Advice’ – took place on 28 February to 1 March in Hermanus, South Africa.

With nearly 80 academies of science and medicine represented at the event, this was the largest ever gathering of academies, according to outgoing IAP co-chair Mohamed Hassan of Sudan. And Hassan should know – he has been involved with IAP in one way or another since its early days.

The meeting kicked off, with a keynote address from the South African Minster of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, who noted that South Africa currently spends a little less than 1% of its GDP on supporting science and technology, but that the South African government aims to increase this to 1.5% within the next few years.

Pandor also said that there was a strong relationship between her ministry and the hosts of the event, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), which used the event to celebrate the 20 years since its creation. ASSAf has grown to become a significant component of the South Africa science advice ecosystem, she confirmed. She also challenged the assembled academy delegates and representatives to aim towards gender equity in all academies, with 50% representation of men and women. Her comment was particularly relevant given the release of the IAP report on ‘Women for Science: Inclusion and Participation in Academies of Science’ that was released later in the week (see below).

The following morning, Sir Peter Gluckman, science adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and chair of the International Network on Government Science Advice (INGSA), set the scene for much of the remainder of the conference.

Gluckman made the point that science and policy are fundamentally different cultures, adding that modern science is becoming increasingly non-normal, with non-linear relationships leading to uncertainties and disputed values. The aim of scientists should be to build trust with governments and their agencies, he said, and to inform policy by translating scientific results into understandable language and concepts. There should also be less expectancy among the scientific community that its advice will be taken on board because policymaking is a messy process, with diverse inputs and viewpoints, and policymakers must weigh many factors besides science.

A session on ‘Science Advice in Times of Disasters/Emergencies’ focused both on natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, as well as disease epidemics such as the recent Ebola outbreak in three West African countries. Among the key points emerging was that preparedness and early warning systems can go a long way to avoiding the worst effects of natural disasters on lives, property, infrastructure and also irreplaceable cultural heritage. Communication is critical and it can be especially important to reach out to local government and to keep local people informed of how they should prepare and react by providing advice in their own language. Virginia Murray, vice-chair, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Scientific and Technical Advisory Group (STAG), also confirmed that academies have an opportunity to get involved in the issue of science advice, communication to the public and to policy-makers, and other issues by joining the S&T Partnership for the Implementation of the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.

With regard to the session dedicated to ‘Science Advice in the International Arena with a Special Focus on Synthetic Biology’, there was the opinion that research into synthetic biology is moving quickly, but that regulatory oversight is failing to keep pace. In addition, many synthetic biology practitioners are operating outside academia, so it is difficult to ensure responsible and ethical research. For these reasons, it was proposed to engage more with these informal groups so that potential misuse of research can be spotted early and averted. At the same time, participants raised the concern that products derived via synthetic biology could be seen as equivalent in all respects to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In this case there is a need to work with social scientists on ways to engage the public in outreach and debate so that the benefits of synthetic biology are not curtailed or over-regulated as they have been with GMOs in some parts of the world.

The end of the first full day of the conference was marked by the launch of the InterAcademy Partnership report on ‘Women for Science: Inclusion and Participation in Academies of Science’, marking the culmination of studies into the numbers of women in academies of science around the globe as well as how active they are within those academies. Among the statistics that emerged from the global survey was that the Cuban Academy of Sciences leads the way in gender equality, with 27% of its members being women. However, this is still some way off parity, as per the challenge given to academies by Minister Pandor in her conference opening address.

The global average for women’s membership in science academies is rather poor, confirms the report, at around 12%. However, there are some other interesting successes. The UK’s Royal Society, for example, has just 6% women among its membership, but 40% of the members of its executive committee are women. For a more detailed summary of the report, and a link to the full report, see /node/48531.

In the session on ‘Country Readiness for Science Advice’, it was noted that the US National Academies was created by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 specifically to provide advice to the US government.  This is also the case of other well-established academies in Europe and elsewhere. However, as pointed out by Norbert Hounkonnou of Benin, the impact of science advice depends on the level of scientific development in a country, and in many African countries the critical mass of scientists living and working in the country is low and the advice framework is minimal. Academies are typically well-equipped to take on this role of science advice, but there is a need to develop relations with the government, including its various regulatory agencies, and possibly finding a direct route, too, to the head of state. Again, however, building such links can be difficult for weak or recently-established academies.

Jacqueline McGlade, Chief Scientist, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), then presented another of the conferences keynote lectures. She highlighted that UNEP was now providing deep, robust and sometimes real-time data that is increasingly demanded by policymakers. Indeed, she noted that small countries (Finland was specifically mentioned) often rely on UNEP and other UN agencies as their ‘civil service’.

This is because UNEP produces in-depth reports on a variety of environmental issues – from water availability and drought to the degree of pollution by plastics in the marine environment – using some 1,200 expert scientists to source information from research published in all UN languages, synthesizing it for consumption by policy-makers and others. Indeed, there is also a commitment on the part of UNEP to make its reports openly accessible – and that all the references cited by the reports are also made freely available and are not hidden behind publishers’ pay-walls.

McGlade also called on IAP, its member academies and leading scientists around the world to engage more with the UNEP process and broaden the base of expertise that is feeding into its reports.

The final session of the conference was moderated by Robbert Dijkgraaf, co-chair of the InterAcademy Council, who led the panellists through a series of questions designed to encourage debate on the issue of the ‘Interplay between Science Advice, Politics and the Media’.

Local science journalist, Linda Nordling, set the scene by pointing out that few newspapers had dedicated science pages, so it was hard to get articles published in the mainstream press. In addition, the average age of journalists working in newsrooms is decreasing (something that she called ‘juniorization’); in many countries there are more public relations personnel working in universities and research institutes than there are science journalists; and there is growing competition from online sources of information such as blogs and even Twitter that can instantly share key points and link with thousands of people. Science media centres, such as that in the UK and other countries, were also lauded for their success in improving science-public communication, as they bring together professional science journalists who can filter the information and ‘translate’ it for the public, with scientists who ensure the credibility of the reporting. In this regard, the model of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellows was also highlighted, whereby young scientists spend short periods of time working within the US government. However, they often remain in government positions and can act as effective interlocutors between scientists and policy-makers.

The need for skills training for scientist to improve their communication with the public was also highlighted, as well as the need for short articles (no longer than one page or one screen), infographics and concise videos (of 2-3 minutes’ duration rather than hour-long documentaries). 

With regard to the role of academies, there was a call for efforts to increase scientific literacy and reasoning among the public, for example via wider roll-out of inquiry-based science education (IBSE) for primary school children, a cornerstone of the long-running IAP Science Education Programme, as well as the fact that academies can reach beyond national borders and bridge political divides.

The final session, led by the two co-chairs of the conference committee, Daya Reddy of ASSAf and Jörg Hacker of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, reviewed some of the over-arching themes that emerged from the sessions of the previous two days.

In summary, these were:

  • Avoid the hubris of thinking science has all the answers. Be an honest broker. Build trust.
  • When providing science advice, it is important to avoid requesting additional funds or advocating on policy-for-science issues.
  • There is a need to be inclusive and solicit diverse inputs, especially from women, social scientists and young scientists.
  • Training in communicating to the public and to policy-makers should be included in undergraduate and graduate curricula, and ways of rewarding scientists for communicating in such ways should be developed – in contrast to many current systems whereby career development is based on the publication of papers in high-impact-factor journals.
  • There was also the question of how academies can respond to requests for rapid responses for advice, often with a turn-around time of just a day or a couple of weeks (compared to the more usual time period of several months or even more than a year to produce thoroughly researched, peer-reviewed reports) while maintaining scientific rigour?
  • Finally, there were many discussions on how we can help academies and other scientists to understand society better so that the scientific message can be tailored in the most appropriate way.

In other words, the core concept that emerged from the IAP Conference on Science Advice was “Communication, communication, communication!”

_ _ _ _ _

The conference was followed on 2 March by the IAP General Assembly (GA) – the triennial meeting where major decisions on the governance of the academy network are taken by the member academies. Among the key decisions in this year’s GA were:

  • Ratification of five new member academies – the academies of science of Benin, Burkina Faso, Ecuador and Honduras, as well the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).
  • The election of a new co-chair to represent developing countries – Krishnan Lal from India, and the re-election of Volker ter Meulen (Germany) to represent industrialized countries. A new Executive Committee was also elected.
  • The decision to bring together three academy networks, IAP, IAMP and IAC, to form the InterAcademy Partnership, with the three component parts to be renamed IAP for Science, IAP for Health and IAP for Research, respectively. The new partnership will enable IAP (the old acronym is being maintained) to speak with one voice on issues of science advice and thus, hopefully, have a greater impact in both national and international policy-making communities.

By Peter McGrath

The IAP Conference website is:

A series of key points raised in the presentations and discussions is available HERE.

You can follow the discussions that took place during the IAP conference on Twitter by via #IAPartnership: