Innovation, Risk and the Science-Policy Interface

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, has this week released his first annual report – Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It. Designed for a wide audience of policymakers, professionals, researchers and others, the report is framed as a “response as Chief Scientific Adviser to the challenges faced by decision makers when determining policy”. To that end, the theme of the first report – comprising a summary and an accompanying volume of evidence and case studies contributed by leading experts – is innovation and risk.

So why are these themes so pertinent to the role of Chief Scientific Adviser? The report asserts that “the need to innovate is a fundamental requirement for social and economic progress”, yet as almost all innovations have the potential to cause harm as well as benefit, “discussion of innovation has become almost inseparable from discussion of risk”. In our contemporary context of population growth, increasing environmental pressures and rapid socio-economic transformations, there is a pressing need to find innovative solutions that facilitate better ways of producing the goods and services on which our society depends. As such, there is an onus on government to design systems of regulation and practice based on “rigorous evidence and well-informed public debate”, which nevertheless do not stifle productive innovation.

Rigorous scientific evidence, clearly communicated, has a vital role to play in how we govern risk. In this context, the report suggests that the role of science advisers – and this could be extended to scientists engaging with policymaking more broadly – is to “describe, analyse and explain the hazards, risks, threats and vulnerabilities”, to enable politicians and society to make well-informed decisions. While the report outlines a series of specific recommendations, within the particular context of the role of scientific evidence in informing decision-making on risk and innovation, a number of key themes emerge, which can be summarised as: specificity, quality of evidence, and values.

Firstly, the report suggests that in order to maximise the benefits of innovation whilst minimising harm, greater care must be taken to evaluate particular innovations and their concomitant risks in relation to specific applications rather than on generic terms. As is often the case at the science-policy interface, asking the right questions is crucial. Within this framing, rather than asking “is nanotechnology a good thing?” the question might be “are nanoparticles of a particular composition an appropriate way to monitor a specific environmental hazard”. Consequently the report suggests that decisions about the risks and benefits of particular innovations should be taken “in the round”, paying attention to the risks and possible consequences of inaction as well as action.

Secondly, the report places an emphasis on ensuring that scientific evidence is of the highest quality and rigour, and that this evidence is communicated to an equally high standard. Systematic evidence reviews incorporating rigorous and neutral meta-analysis, such as Cochrane Reviews and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are highlighted as strong examples; “science cannot be used in decision-making if it is unclear what is already known”. Effectively communicating this science in a manner that acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge, and expresses levels of uncertainty in a clear and open manner is raised as a key challenge.

Thirdly, the report makes it clear that when it comes to decision making about innovation and risk, science is not the only game in town; debates on thorny issues are always about values as well as science. This is equally the case at a political level, where social, political and economic considerations also influence decision makers thinking, and at a public level, where our individual responses to innovation and risk are subject to a wealth of cultural and social influences. These factors play out differently across cultures and nations, further complicating international decision making where individual countries may have very different approaches to assessing risk. The report suggests that making the role of values explicit can enable more productive and clearer discussions at all levels.

Read together, these themes provide welcome food for thought for researchers and organisations working at the science-policy interface, and provide an insight into the challenges faced, and approach taken by the Chief Scientific Adviser. How might ecologists take these ideas on board?