Chief science advisers and why they matter

Paul Dufour
June 26, 2024

Paul Dufour is a senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. This op-ed first appeared here, republished with permission from The Hill Times.

OTTAWA – Arati Prabhakar, the U.S. president’s chief adviser for science and technology, recently told Wired that “scientists want to explain more, but they should be humble . . . In year two of the pandemic, people kept saying that the guidance keeps changing, and all I could think was, ‘of course the guidance is changing, our understanding is changing.’ The moment called for a little humility from the research community rather than saying, ‘we’re the know-it-alls.’”

Indeed. Science is a human activity with all of what that entails, and science advice is an art, not a science.

Science advisers are not demi-gods, nor are they robots, but they can be huge influencers in shaping new policy. So when five extraordinary female chief science advisers gathered in Ottawa this month for a unique panel to discuss why science advice matters in providing sound counsel to their leaders, the audience was in for a special conversation.

Not to be overlooked with their presence was that gender equity in high-level science advice is finally making its impact in what has been largely a male-dominated role since the early 1950s.

The line-up for the special panel was Prabhakar; Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science adviser; Cathy Foley, Australia’s chief scientist; Juliet Gerrard, the New Zealand prime minister’s chief science adviser; and Angela McLean, the United Kingdom’s government chief scientific adviser.

The panel was hosted by the Canadian Museum of Nature, and moderated by the Minister for Women Marci Ien. She ably engaged with the panel on various topics affecting their respective mandates, as well as their career trajectories.

There was also a dynamic group of students and teachers in the audience brought together by Bonnie Schmidt, the visionary entrepreneur of Let’s Talk Science.

Not everybody was necessarily aware of what a chief science adviser does, nor did they fully appreciate the finer points of providing sound advice within any politically charged environment increasingly facing a highly disruptive global landscape.

We learned that it is no easy task. No one is trained to be a science adviser. While they are political appointments, they rarely have much prior grounding in how the government operates, nor how policy decisions are made. They learn on the job, and tap into formal and informal networks as relevant.

The office they manage usually has a limited budget, and advice is a craft, not a science. It comes with built-in values and, at times, over-the-top expectations. Further, with the rise of social media, it is often criticized and under attack by elements of society that have other agendas. 

At one point, the moderator asked the advisers what they felt had been their biggest impact. The answers were varied, from plastics pollution treaties, to quantum computing, to vaccine development, to open science, to the emerging effects of AI on workforce and career development.

There was even a nice story by Prabhakar about using ChatGPT to demonstrate its potential to the U.S. president. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, a key message was that while communicating how science works is important to the job, it is not the pivotal matter. Rather, it often needs to be blended with an understanding of the behavioural sciences, how the public responds to crises and evidence, and how management functions in organizations.

Team chemistry and interpersonal relations also matter. So does patience, and not expecting advice to always be adopted. This last point came up often in the discussion as several of the advisers made the point that storytelling can be a much more powerful tool in presenting evidence and data than sheer numbers. Doing one’s homework and reading the body language of your audience is essential to carry the message through.

There is no question that the pandemic put a very different spin on the nature of the job over the past several years, and continues to do so. It has consumed most science and health advisers and their staff, both here in Canada and around the globe. But other emerging issues may have been left by the wayside, and a larger, more effective public debate needs to be engaged, especially with emergencies, and social and political upheavals – be they locally, regionally, or globally generated.

This issue was also brought up on several occasions with some advisers underscoring the need to tap into local issues, and getting out of their comfort zones to other public spaces.

It became clear with several questions from the many smart students in the audience that the advisors have become conscious of a need to better shape advice and their offices to incorporate next-generation talent and skills in a meaningful way. For example, Canada’s Nemer has a dynamic youth council advising her, and the New Zealand’s Gerrard takes on student interns to learn more about the role of science advice.

The science advisers were also asked about international co-operation, and why this is important. After all, like the conduct of science and knowledge production, science advice is a global enterprise. The pandemic was a prime example of how the sharing of information and evidence was critical to the success of the vaccines, which in turn had relied on investing in basic research dating back decades.

But it goes beyond that. While keeping apprised of security matters, science in, for, and with diplomacy is required to keep borders open to new ideas, emerging opportunities, and creative talents.

But to be clear. One chief science adviser or groups of technology-innovation counsellors – no matter how brilliant or dedicated, nor where the function is located – does not make a well-oiled science advisory ecosystem. The position needs to be embedded and linked within a larger framework of organizations that can both supply advice and respond to demand regionally, nationally as well as globally. Pluralism in reliable advice – well grounded, of course – can be an asset.

Further, this larger capacity also requires some form of foresight function. Scanning for emerging threats on the horizon as well as identifying any new opportunities is essential. 

At the end of the day, good science advice is not about trying to make everyone think like a scientist. Rather, it is about maintaining a trusted, ongoing and open dialogue with both the wider public and the polity in helping frame key, science-informed issues while ably communicating these through persuasive evidence and powerful narrative.

And yes, humility can help.



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