Product has been added to the basket

Scientific Analysis in Policy Making

Response to Government Office for Science Consultation on Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making

Submitted 8 February 2010
  1. The Geological Society is grateful for the opportunity to respond to this consultation. We do not wish to reply to all the questions identified in the consultation document, and instead set out some comments below which touch on a number of the issues raised, particularly in respect of the actual and potential roles of learned societies and professional bodies in providing and brokering expert inputs to the policy making process.
  2. We welcome recognition in the current (2005) guidelines of the need for diverse expert inputs across a wide range of disciplines, alongside public and stakeholder engagement, and that selection of appropriate specialisms, bodies and individuals in this context is far from being a straightforward matter. We note, furthermore, that the credibility of policy making processes, and of the use of expert inputs within these processes, may be strengthened by paying attention to the sectors in which expertise originates (academia, industry, government agencies and regulatory bodies, NGOs, etc), and by aiming to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between such sources (so that the advice process is seen not to have been ‘captured’ by any particular sectional interest).
  3. The guidelines rightly point out that experts will often disagree. This should be embraced rather than be seen as a problem to be overcome – although it clearly raises challenges for the formulation of policy, and for explaining how policy decisions have been made. (The ways in which these challenges might best be addressed is outside the Geological Society’s area of competence, but we note the emerging body of social scientific literature on these issues.) Dissent, unorthodoxy, and the identification and exploration of data which do not conform to prevailing norms are at the heart of science – and drive its development. It is vital therefore that in seeking the ‘best scientific advice’, government welcomes plural (and potentially conflicting) expert inputs.
  4. We are pleased that the guidelines identify learned societies and professional bodies as being well placed to assist with several aspects of the identification and provision of expert advice. Some institutions, such as the Geological Society, function as both learned societies and professional bodies, lending them particular strength in this regard. The learned societies (including those which also have a professional role) are well placed to provide advice, or to work with government and others on the sourcing of advice, in particular because of their high level of actual and perceived independence – a reputation which such organisations will be keen to preserve, to the benefit of themselves and of those whom they advise. The Geological Society, for example, is a member-led organisation in which Earth scientists from a range of academic disciplines, industrial sectors and other institutional settings, and with a variety of personal and professional agendas, expect to find a forum where they can share knowledge and views, and expose and debate disagreements. The Society strives to provide a transparent and fair setting for such debate, and its efforts in this regard are policed by its diverse membership. This ensures that the Society is particularly well placed as a locus for accessing plural and dissenting expert inputs from a wide range of sources, in a way which is likely to engender the confidence of the scientific community from which they are drawn.
  5. We are conscious of the complexity of the task facing government officials and others when they seek appropriate sources of advice, and that it is not necessarily straightforward even to identify the best placed learned society or societies to assist. We applaud work being done by the Government Office for Science and others on improving understanding of and mechanisms for accessing academic and other expertise, and would welcome the opportunity for continued dialogue with officials responsible for this work. We also note the considerable scope for improved coordination between learned societies as sources of expert advice, although finding effective and affordable mechanisms to achieve this is not a trivial matter – we are in the early stages of discussion with other societies about this.