Emily Rushton: How to integrate science into policy: NZ scientist opens UN forum

New Zealand had the honour of Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Scientific advisor to Prime Minister John Key and Chair of International Network for Governmental Scientific Advice, being the keynote speaker at the opening of the United Nations Environment Assembly 2 (UNEA2) Science and Policy Forum. His address on why science doesn’t directly translate into policy, followed by a panel and floor discussion, was thought provoking and lead me to want to share how we can help create more policy that will insure climate action from a national level.

One of the key things Sir Peter talked about was how scientists and nations understand and operate very differently on the same data. Basically, when nations use science diplomatically, we operate in self-interested ways. This means that no matter what the scientists have found, we then only want to apply them in ways that will further our own agendas. Unfortunately the new United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are likely to be used in a similar way if we are not careful. Sir Peter confirmed later, saying that the SDGs were unlikely to be implemented in NZ at all, despite NZ having signed to adhere to all 169 actions.

Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Judi Wakhungu, a scientist turned politician, expressed how surprised she was that upon entering politics she found science to be ‘negotiable’. Wakhungu confirmed that to get action, there had to be negotiations, it was how politics worked. She also said urgency was differently weighted. When scientists feel like movement needs to be implemented quickly, politicians might, for example, differ topics until after elections. This is very frustrating for scientists.

Gluckman emphasised the need to ensure science is considered early in policy making. He showed a humorous model of the realistic process of how policies are made, showing a confused picture of dozens of arrows in every direction. Speakers following him acknowledged the accuracy of the comical diagram. Gluckman said that additionally, policies are often started as informal discussions and moved forward before the scientific community is aware and able to give any input. He stated, often there is only one time in the policy process that input can be given and even input is obtained, if the exact question isn’t answered, often it won’t be considered. One way around this, Gluckman suggested, is to have a scientific advisor, who knows politics, to be utilised for all policy.

Gluckman expressed that the complexities involved are huge and conflicting values between policy makers, society and scientists also create issues. This is contributed to the fact that often it is politicians that discuss the science and decisions on the data in the public arena, not the experts. Gluckman suggested the problem is that most of the science is now post-normal, meaning due to the acceleration of change, all results are only relevant for the immediate past. Our findings are out dated as soon as we have them and in a social media arena this causes denial and discussion rather than action. He emphasised that global interests are more likely to be progressed if we have national interests being achieved at the same time.

Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services, echoed Gluckman, by saying that science needs to ensure it is relevant. She explained that her team has a system in place to ask the policy makers what they actually what answers for, then make sure they are being met. They include a specific section on policy options and managements in all reports as well. Additionally Larigauderie suggested regular dialog between scientists, agencies that fund research and organisations like Universities and policy makers. This may help to stop the dismissing of research, ensure exactly what is wanted is researched, creates stronger bodies of knowledge and a better collaborative relationship.

Andy Revkin, a Science and Environmental Writer, advised that often science makes things more confusing, not less. Having more information makes decided on policies more difficult. Revkin went on to say that global goals must be implemented at the most local level for it to be effective. For example, he said, locals making money from the destructive practises, like animal agriculture, need to be given alternative incomes.

Essentially we need to develop self-interests that will benefit SDGs globally and start working more collaboratively.

Actions to make sustainable and health promoting policies more likely:

  • Make the science relevant to local and national issues
  • Establish all policies to be informed by scientific advice
  • Ask policy makers what is stopping them acting, what do they need and work on those areas
  • Create open partnership with universities/research organisations to have good communication about what research is needed to ensure effective time and resource use.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on May 20, 2016 and filed under UNEA 2016.