The need for science advice is becoming increasingly important because of the scientific nature of the challenges confronting modern society – examples include climate change, infectious diseases, food security, and most of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It is easy to appreciate the role of science advice to government in times of disasters or national emergencies, but the need for ongoing science advice that is trustworthy, credible and impartial is equally critical.
Most governments today rely on science advice to assist them to navigate wisely through the range of options available to them from a vast array of sources. Indeed, it is often not an absence of information that is the problem these days, but rather an over-supply of sometimes complex information that can overwhelm policymakers. Governments are bombarded with ‘experts’ and organisations which are all willing to provide advice. Knowing who to trust and how to deal with scientific uncertainty and conflicting evidence become key.
It is useful to conceive of the notion of a science advisory ecosystem, which accommodates a range of co-existing science advisory modalities, with individual models assuming varying importance in different countries, giving rise to ecosystems that may have quite different geographical expressions. Some of these science advisory modalities may include individual scientists, industry and/or business groupings, non-governmental organisations, science and technology committees, statutory bodies mandated to provide advice, government scientists, national academies and chief science advisors.
A variety of advisory structures is in place in SA, which includes those listed above, as well as others such as advisors in individual ministries, sector-specific advisory bodies, and early warning advisory bodies. It is therefore not difficult to understand why in SA, the term “crowded advisory space” is often used. Two that have carved their individual niches in the science advisory space are the Academy of Science of SA and the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI). The Academy’s strength lies in long-term, in-depth, evidence-based studies known as ‘consensus studies’. Consensus studies are executed by a panel of volunteer members (not necessarily Academy members/fellows) that provide a multi-perspective, evidence-based view on a particular topic. Findings and recommendations are synthesized and published in a peer-reviewed report that is made available in the public domain. Hence Academy advice is valued for its transparency and credibility; academies are not suited to giving confidential advice. Arguably there are other individuals/bodies that are more suited to this type of science advice and the distinction between such bodies and academies in respect of their science advisory roles should remain – further strengthening the notion of a science advisory ecosystem and a distinct but synergistic role for all the ecosystem components. NACI, on the other hand, has focused on shorter time scale studies of the order of a few months and produces concise briefs for the Minister of Science and Technology. NACI also has a far greater focus on innovation and systemic-wide studies.
One of the biggest challenges faced by bodies giving science advice is the receptivity or country readiness for science advice. A report will have a limited impact on the policy if the government is either unwilling or unprepared to receive the advice. It must also be acknowledged that there are limitations of science advice in the policy-making process. The policy is rarely determined by scientific evidence alone. To some extent, the provision of advice may be viewed as separate from the policy making process. The advice that is given should be based on the best available information which underpins objective conclusions and recommendations to policymakers. That a policymaker may elect on occasions not to follow the advice given must be acknowledged.
There may be many competing and compelling considerations that have little to do with scientific evidence, such as financial constraints, public opinion, and political obligations. It is for this reason that the term evidence-informed policy, as opposed to evidence-based policy, is preferred some.
*Prof Diab is the former CEO of ASSAf and currently a Director at GenderInSITE