EASAC study sheds light on communication with policy-makers

A new study by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) aims to shed light on how academic bodies across Europe communicate with policy-makers, and how this can be improved. Drs John Holmes and John Murlis attended a meeting of Policy Lunchbox yesterday afternoon to discuss the study, and in doing so provided a few tips to the Learned Societies and charitable bodies represented.

EASAC is an independent and impartial association of national science academies from across Europe, concerned with building science into EU policy-making. The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of science, and representative on EASAC. The aims of EASAC are delivered through three programmes: energy, led by John Holmes, environment, led by John Murlis, and biosciences. Within these topics, EASAC convenes expert working groups of members and facilitates workshops, with the subjects for reports and inquiries developed via an understanding of the needs of the European policy community.

For the past year, John Holmes and John Murlis have been working on a project, sponsored by the Inter-Academy Panel (IAP), focusing on ‘Good Practice in between Academies and Policy Communities’, aiming to produce and disseminate guidance based on the science – policy activities of EASAC members. The guidance document was finished earlier this week, so the presentation to Policy Lunchbox members was the first to share the final results of the study.

Twenty-seven academies took part in a survey to determine by what means and how frequently they communicated with policy-makers. Five organisations were revealed to be very active in policy engagement, with two thirds of academies engaging only occassionally. Eleven organisations convey a consensus view to policy-makers, whilst eight present a consensus view on occassion, and a range of views on others. Increasingly, said John Murlis, there is interest amongst Academies in providing policy-makers with a more nuanced view from science, recognising complexity and uncertainty.

Whilst many organisations produced reports for policy-makers as an output of projects, others adopted more innovative means of communication, producing policy briefs for Government, organising seminars and policy fora – bringing scientists and policy-makers together under the ‘Chatham House Rule’, providing a protected and confidential space for discussion.

One of the interesting points to emerge from yesterday’s lunchtime discussion concerned the need for Academies to negotatiate the ‘handover point’; the point at which their advice is provided to policy-makers. John Holmes represented this as a continuum, from providing an overview of the science, to interpreting the implications of the science for policy, to suggesting policy options for Government and identifying those options most likely to succeed, based on scientific analysis. It is often said that scientists should ‘do science’, leaving policy-makers to make policy. In response to a question regarding the appropriateness of scientists suggesting policy options, John Holmes commented that if scientific bodies don’t do this, there is a danger that they will ‘miss out’ and others will step into this space. He suggested that professional bodies could suggest policy options, if it was made clear that these were based on scientific evidence and not the broader range of considerations policy-makers must take into account when making decisions.

EASAC has submitted an application to the IAP for funding to help EASAC members to implement the guidance, and also to facilitate work with the African Academies of science on a similar piece of work. The guidance document will shortly be available from the EASAC website, and will be updated regularly as new lessons emerge from EASAC members.