As science and technology have come to play critical roles in addressing (and in some cases precipitating) diverse issues in contemporary society, demand for scientific advice has soared. Yet, there lack norms and cross-disciplinary codes of conduct within this nascent field.

Traditionally, most scientific advice has been practiced as risk assessment, whose role and influence has evolved and matured over several decades. The well-established community of risk assessment and the newly emerging community of scientific advice have so far had little dialogue with each other, but could benefit greatly by sharing and blending the former’s practical experience and the latter’s dynamism to respond to diverse and unforeseen questions.

In 1664, the British horticulturist and diarist John Evelyn published Sylva, the first book ever published by the Royal Society. An early example of scientific policy advice, this comprehensive study of trees in Britain recommended instituting formal protection of productive forests.

Policy makers at local, national, and international level have never been in greater need of scientific advice. They seek to acquire advice based on expertise of scientists or their organizations to handle a wide range of policy issues, which are fraught with ever increasing complexities and uncertainties. Due to this growing demand, in the last five years scientific advice has been institutionalized in international bodies much more formally than before. The United Nations created the Scientific Advisory Board for its Secretary-General in 2013, while the European Commission established its new Scientific Advisory Mechanism in 2015.

At the same time, discussions on the proper processes and organizations for scientific advice, the roles and responsibilities of scientists and policy makers, and the need for formulating codes of conduct for them, have rapidly expanded in the international arena. An expert study group of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report addressing these issues in 2015 1. Hundreds of scientific advisors, policy makers, and scholars at the science-policy interface met to contemplate emerging science-policy challenges at International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) conference, first held in 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand and then in 2016 in Brussels. Such studies and events exemplifiy a regent surge of attention to the processes and norms underlying the delivery of scientific advice internationally.

The emergence of scientific advice

Scientific advice itself is not a new phenomenon, however; it has been practiced for decades or even centuries. The government has always needed scientific advice for matters of warfare, public work, public health, and industrial development. The Royal Society of London, established in 1660, was formed with the function of advising and informing public policy in mind. Its first report, published in 1664, presented a comprehensive study of trees in Britain and recommended instituting formal protection of productive forests. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of the United States was established in 1863 to “provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology”.

Although scientific advice gained importance especially after World War II, it was largely after 1970 that the science-policy interface began to be appreciated as a delicate balancing act requiring careful and critical discussion. Around this time environmental problems and other intractable complications regarding science and technology emerged. People came to recognize that science could not always solve policy problems, that science could not be free from uncertainties, and that science was not the only element to be considered in policy making. A central question emerged as to how science should be effectively and justifiably incorporated into the process of policy making.

This question was prominently asked in policy areas as food safety, drug approval and environmental regulation during the 1980s and the 1990s. In these regulatory policy areas, a basic consensus emerged that risk assessment based on scientific viewpoints should be conducted separately from risk management performed from overall viewpoints. That is, risks of food additives, drug side-effects, exposure to chemical substances, and so on should be assessed by scientists independently from policy makers, who take regulatory actions based on such assessment. At the same time, however, scientists performing risk assessment and policy makers engaged in risk management must maintain trust and proper communication between each other, and with other stakeholders, including citizens. Otherwise scientific advisors might offer risk assessments that do not fit actual policy contexts, and policy makers might misinterpret risk assessments provided by scientists. The science needed for formulating regulatory policies came to be called 'regulatory science' in the 1980s.

The concept of scientific advice, which does not apply just to regulatory policy but to policy in general, gradually came into regular use since the 1990s and became highly popular in the 2010s. That is mainly because major events prompting discussion at the science-policy interface, such as the BSE crisis, political intervention in climate change such as carbon pricing, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, took place one after another. After those events, the utility of the concept of scientific advice expanded because it could address the real and evolving dynamics of science and policy making better than schemes such as 'risk assessment/risk management' or 'regulatory science'.

Seeking common guidelines and principles

As scientific advice has become increasingly essential in a wide range of policy areas, considerable diversity in the scheme and process of scientific advice can be observed. That is natural, considering that the science-policy interface in each policy area is path- and context-dependent. In other words, mechanisms to incorporate scientific expertise into the process of policy making has been historically shaped by the area's unique settings.

Meanwhile, recent lively debates in the international arena on scientific advice have tended to aim at developing generic norms and principles to be followed by scientists, policy makers, and other stakeholders. The OECD’s aforementioned expert study group developed a preliminary 'checklist' for scientific advisory processes. One of the things it called for was “a clear definition and, insofar as is possible, a clear demarcation of advisory versus decision-making functions and roles”. This requirement is related to the critical question of how to ensure the independence of scientific advisors from government while maintaining proper communication and interaction.

Another important issue is how to select scientific advisors properly for particular policy questions. The OECD checklist points out the need for “using a transparent process for participation and following strict procedures for declaring, verifying and dealing with conflicts of interest”, “engaging all the necessary scientific expertise across disciplines to address the issue at hand”, and “giving explicit consideration to whether and how to engage non-scientific experts and/or civil society stakeholders in framing and/or generating the advice”.

Other important questions include how scientific advisors and policy makers handle scientific uncertainties appropriately, how to effectively define policy questions to be examined by scientific advisors in the first place, and how to ensure openness and transparency of the whole process. To provide guidelines with regard to all these issues, INGSA is currently seeking to establish principles and guidelines for scientific advice, which can be commonly applied to any policy area in any nation.

However, while it would be useful for scientific advisors and policy makers to understand such generic discussion on scientific advice, that does not mean that domain specific scientific advisory schemes and processes should be re-designed in line with the model suggested by scientific advice discourse. Yet heightened awareness of normative as well as actual schemes and processes of scientific advice would aid the robust development of policy practice in particular policy areas. In turn, the ongoing discussion on scientific advice could be fruitfully informed by the past and current practice of risk assessment/risk management in highly developed policy areas such as food safety and environmental regulation.

In sum, practitioners and scholars of risk assessment/risk management and those of scientific advice could learn much from each other. So far, there has been little dialogue between the relatively well-established community of risk assessment/risk management and the growing community of scientific advice. Even within the former, there has been little interaction between individual policy areas. Fostering communication between these communities and sub-communities has emerged as an urgently needed response to aid the maturation and capacity of science-policy interface.