The first Science Advice to Governments conference took place in Auckland New Zealand on August 28-29, 2014. The meeting was co-hosted by the Office of Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the International Council for Science (ICSU) and was timed to immediately precede ICSU’s General Assembly of national members and scientific unions also held in Auckland. The presence of so many of the world’s most distinguished scientists and leaders in their country’s respective science systems (as science advisors and/or heads of academies) made this meeting a landmark event.
The Auckland conference was designed as an opportunity for the world’s leading practitioners of science advice to meet and discuss the key challenges and good practices of their task, together with scholars having expertise in the field. The practitioners ranged from individual science advisors to the highest levels of governments and government departments, to heads of academies and other advisory committees. Delegates spoke to a variety of science advisory models that were established (or being established) in a number of jurisdictions globally (see conference briefing document prepared by James Wilsdon et al. which outlines the most prominent models currently in use).
While the science advisory models considered at the conference each suit particular social, cultural and historical contexts, common across all of them was a primary concern for science advice for public policy as distinct from policy advice for the science system. Indeed, the former was the objective of the conference, having been clearly distinguished from the latter in both pre-conference briefing material and by the Chair’s opening remarks. However, delegates recognised that the boundaries and associated roles of these two domains are necessarily blurred, particularly with many national science systems now being driven by ‘grand societal challenges,’ and by funding structures being designed to maximise the policy and economic relevance of science.
As the first conference of its kind with the participation of a considerable number of high-level practitioners and scholars, the Auckland meeting was deliberately exploratory in its objectives and approach. The foremost aim of the conference was to create a fairly informal space for frank discussion about the practice of science advice and, in particular, how to navigate the inherent tensions of the task – from epistemological issues stemming from the nature and sufficiency of evidence, and communicating scientific uncertainty, to procedural and structural considerations about maintaining independence and taking action in times of crisis.
A second aim of the conference was to begin to build a peer network of science advice practitioners and scholars to 1) provide peer support to each other regarding parallel issues arising in respective jurisdictions; 2) through such issues, explore both the conceptual and practical aspects that arise at the science/policy interface 3) provide context to emerging economies in the development of a science advisory system or in accessing science advice externally and 4) exploring the need and potential for concerted efforts in science advice multilaterally to international organisations, particularly where there is an acute need (such as in a health crisis or natural disaster involving multiple countries) outside of established advisory committees and processes that tend to focus on longer-term issues. By helping to establish a network of both practitioners and scholars, the hope is to seed the development of this emerging field in a practical and reflective way.
A third aim of the conference was to respond to a growing global interest in the role of the scientific voice in policy-making. That is, the conference provided an initial opportunity to gauge whether it is possible to develop a set of guiding principles for science advice globally that could resonate with the varied cultural, historical and political contexts of the world’s governments today. Less outcome-driven than exploratory, this aim was intended simply to start a conversation about what good science advice looks like and how we might support all economies to safeguard quality evidence for decisions.