Science meets Policymakers: promoting evidence-based policy development
A report prepared by Chris Cazzonelli
On the 24th of February 2012 The Science meets Policymakers Summit brought together over 300 of Australia’s top scientific researchers and policymakers to Canberra to investigate the intersection between the evidence base and government policy development. The theme for this year’s summit was: Evidence-based policy development.
ASPS member Dr. Christopher Cazzonelli attended this unique event and commented “The Science meets Policymakers Summit was a real eye opener on the depth of challenges faced when attempting to instigate evidence-based policy development”. Australia will be able to better address complex and demanding policy changes by improving the communication ties between scientists and policymakers. Issues such as our aging population, natural resource availability and environmental sustainability could become compromised unless the links between science and policy are streamlined.
A general theme was that good science is just not enough without well developed and sound public policy. It was deemed important we don’t ignore the scientific evidence base when developing public policy. The fisheries management policy was highlighted as an outstanding example of where science has integrated well into policy and practice and as a result the community is better for it. But it didn’t take long to identify areas where public policy is driven by short-term politics and vested interests rather then scientific evidence and perhaps the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was the best example discussed where there is some division between policy and science letting the country down. To find answers to complex policy questions we do rely on good science and experts who can communicate with influence and take action when necessary. It was understood that to ignore scientific evidence when establishing public policy could set Australia up to fail in the long term.
This year’s event hosted by Science and Technology Australia focussed on finding practical solutions to improve the links between science and government policy development. As one might expect there were frustrations in the room, felt by scientists and policymakers alike. Policy development is not a linear process, nor are research outputs likely to be picked off the supermarket shelf. So in consideration of the reality that politics and community sentiment play a part in policy development, there was a strong consensus that evidence-based policy development should be a rule in policy development and not the exception.
This year’s summit aimed to:
- To shape a forward agenda between the research community and government that will allow us to move beyond identifying the need to improve evidence-based policy development and focus on what we need to do to achieve it.
- Better understand the barriers to effective evidence-based policy development.
- To inform and enable policymakers and scientists.
- To improve science communication.
- Generate key action points that can be put into practice.
Key Action Points include:
1) Produce short issues summaries (maximum of 4 pages) detailing what the scientific evidence base says about relevant issues. While an accurate and current four page brief will never replace ongoing and important dialogues and collaborations with discipline-specific researchers, it will certainly replace Google as a first port of call. This action seeks to make available to policymakers readable, engaging and accessible research reports based on a successful model utilised by the UK’s Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).
2) Drive options for the Australian equivalent of fellowships, such as those that exist at the AAAS and similar schemes in order to broaden skills and raise understanding about the policy making process. Aimed at addressing the poor engagement between scientists and policy makers by broadening skills in both groups and is one way forward based on a successful model used in the USA.
3) Remove disincentives for policymakers who wish to engage more with the scientific process and for scientists who wish to know more about policy development and engage with policy formulators. Consideration should be given to include into academic reward structures recognition of ‘national service’ (e.g. contribution to policy development). Funding bodies (e.g. ARC, NHMRC) could recognise, or at the very least not compromise, participation in activities that improve policy formulation and science communication outside of an academic or highly specialist audience.
4) Formalise scientific advice models within government organisations. It was proposed that an independent scientific adviser or dedicated internal science advisors might be appointed to every government department as is the case in the UK.
5) Find mechanisms for Government to identify, recognise and value scientific skills within the Australian Political System. Tertiary science and mathematics education provides individuals with problem-solving, analytical and decision-making skills. Better use of public servants harbouring these skills should be adopted and mechanisms established to identify officers with unique problem solving and analytical skills so they can offer scientific advice, in particular, to improve rigour in policy development.
6) Strive to make research reports readable, engaging and accessible and best practice should be applied in their preparation and presentation. More efficient reporting could be adopted to assist researcher and policymakers present their work in a readable, engaging and accessible way. For example, a layered model where detailed information appears in appendices or attachments on their website. In addition, reports could include chapters targeting interested persons, an overview that’s more accessible to a wider policy interested audience, and a one-page box for political leaders to distil everything down to key points.
Science & Technology Australia is committed to raising outcomes from this Summit with the relevant authorities and stakeholders by advocating for change that will improve evidence-based policy development and public policy outcomes. This will be achieved by exploring stakeholders’ willingness to convene and participate in small forums or workshops to progress the action items as well as working with the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education to explore the possibility of a second or annual Science meets Policymakers Forum.
Disclaimer. This report was prepared with the kind assistance from Anna-Maria Arabia from Science and Technology Australia.