Science advice: The good, the bad, the ugly

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Peter Gluckman, chief scientific advisor to the prime minister of New Zealand Copyright: Flickr/TWAS

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[BUDAPEST] Most of the last day at the World Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary, was dedicated to the issue of how to best give science advice to policymakers. The forum, which ran from 3-8 November, heard that a new era of more formalised science advice is just beginning, and that a new profession is emerging: the official scientific advisor.

Over the past year or so, we have seen the birth of the International Network for Government Science Advice and the publication of the OECD’s report on Scientific Advice for Policy Making — both important milestones highlighting this new trend. Courses for science advice in Africa are oversubscribed: Peter Gluckman, chief scientific advisor to the prime minister of New Zealand, said he received 350 applications for only 40 available places on a course he runs.

But in this world of professionalised and formalised science advice, we need to consider the question of transparency and the quality of advice that is being given.

Most people in the field appear to be middle-aged white men, as SciDev.Net has previously reported, skewing the type of advice given to politicians. At the conference, Gluckman acknowledged this. “I realise our panel is all men and we’re all old.”

An example of bad scientific advice was the presentation by Adam Torok, secretary-general of the Hungarian academy of sciences, and the forum’s host. He presented research commissioned by Hungary’s right-wing government, which has been widely criticised for how it is dealing with refugees.

His presentation treated people as numbers, devoid of humanity. The first slide listed refugees as the number of “illegal border crossings”. It then presented the proportion of those migrants who were men, implying that they mostly came for economic reasons, not because their lives are in danger. The study also went into unnecessary detail about migrants’ gender.

Before the boom in Syrian refugees arriving in Europe, most immigrants integrated well in Hungarian society, we were told — being integrated was defined as having a job. But immigrants from the Balkan region contribute nothing to the intellectual life of the country, Torok said.

So, with one PowerPoint slide, Torok painted people from a whole region of Europe as intellectual zeros who have nothing to offer. Gone was impartiality in this piece of policy advice.

Disturbingly, the UN delegates and other dignitaries sharing the panel with him listened quietly, even as an academic was presenting research that was framing research in a prejudicial way.

We can do without the kind of science advice that panders to prejudice and political elites. The World Science Forum’s emphasis on professionalising scientific advice made clear that society will be better off if such dangerous, one-sided academic exercises are kept well away from public policy decisions.