Science advisors gather in an international call for evidence-based policy making

The largest-ever independent gathering of interest groups, thought-leaders, science advisors to governments and global institutions, researchers, academics, communicators, and diplomats is taking place in Montreal and online.

Organized by Prof Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Québec, speakers from over 50 countries from Brazil to Burkina Faso and from Ireland to Indonesia, plus over 2000 delegates from over 130 countries, will spotlight what is really at stake in the relationship between science and policy-making, both during crises and within our daily lives.

From the air we breathe, the food we eat and the cars we drive, to the medical treatments or the vaccines we take, and the education we provide to children, this relationship, and the decisions it can influence, matter immensely.

Prof Rémi Quirion, Conference Organizer, Chief Scientist of Québec, and incoming President of INGSA added: "For those of us who believe wholeheartedly in evidence and the integrity of science, the past 18 months have been challenging. Information, correct and incorrect, can spread like a virus. The importance of open science and access to data to inform our UN sustainable development goals discussions or domestically as we strengthen the role of cities and municipalities, has never been more critical. I have no doubt that this transparent and honest platform led from Montréal will act as a carrier-wave for greater engagement".

Chief Science Advisor of Canada and Conference co-organizer, Dr Mona Nemer, stated that: "Rapid scientific advances in managing the Covid pandemic have generated enormous public interest in evidence-based decision making. This attention comes with high expectations and an obligation to achieve results. Overcoming the current health crisis and future challenges will require global coordination in science advice, and INGSA is well positioned to carry out this important work. Canada and our international peers can benefit greatly from this collaboration."

This is a timely conference as we are at a turning point not just in the pandemic, but globally in our management of longer-term challenges that affect us all. INGSA has helped build and elevate open and ongoing public and policy dialogue about the role of robust evidence in sound policy making".

Sir Peter Gluckman, Founding Chair, International Network for Government Science Advice

He added that: "Issues that were considered marginal seven years ago when the network was created are today rightly seen as central to our social, environmental and economic wellbeing. The pandemic highlights the strengths and weaknesses of evidence-based policy-making at all levels of governance. Operating on all continents, INGSA demonstrates the value of a well-networked community of emerging and experienced practitioners and academics, from countries at all levels of development. Learning from each other, we can help bring scientific evidence more centrally into policy-making. INGSA has achieved much since its formation in 2014, but the energy shown in this meeting demonstrates our potential to do so much more".

Held previously in Auckland 2014, Brussels 2016, Tokyo 2018 and delayed for one year due to Covid, the advantage of the new hybrid and virtual format is that organizers have been able to involve more speakers, broaden the thematic scope, and offer the conference as free to view online, reaching thousands of more people.

Examining the complex interactions between scientists, public policy, and diplomatic relations at local, national, regional, and international levels, especially in times of crisis, the overarching INGSA2021 theme is: "Build back wiser: knowledge, policy & publics in dialogue".

The first three days will scrutinize everything from concrete case studies outlining successes and failures in our advisory systems to how digital technologies and AI are reshaping the profession itself. The final day targets how expertise and action in the cultural context of the French-speaking world are encouraging partnerships and contributing to economic and social development. A highlight of the conference is the 2 September announcement of a new 'Francophonie Science Advisory Network'.

Prof. Salim Abdool Karim, a member of the World Health Organization's Science Council, and the face of South Africa's Covid-19 science speaking in the opening plenary outlined that: "As a past anti-apartheid activist now providing scientific advice to policy-makers, I have learnt that science and politics share common features. Both operate at the boundaries of knowledge and uncertainty, but approach problems differently. We scientists constantly question and challenge our assumptions, constantly searching for empiric evidence to determine the best options. In contrast, politicians are most often guided by the needs or demands of voters and constituencies, and by ideology".

He added: "What is changing is that grass-roots citizens worldwide are no longer ill-informed and passive bystanders. And they are rightfully demanding greater transparency and accountability. This has brought the complex contradictions between evidence and ideology into the public eye. Covid-19 is not just a disease, its social fabric exemplifies humanity's interdependence in slowing global spread and preventing new viral mutations through global vaccine equity. This starkly highlights the fault-lines between the rich and poor countries, especially the maldistribution of life-saving public health goods like vaccines. I will explore some of the key lessons from Covid-19 to guide a better response to the next pandemic".

Speaking on a panel analyzing different advisory models, Prof. Mark Ferguson, Chair of the European Innovation Council's Advisory Board and Chief Science Advisor to the Government of Ireland, sounded a note of optimism and caution in stating that: "Around the world, many scientists have become public celebrities as citizens engage with science like never before. Every country has a new, much followed advisory body. With that comes tremendous opportunities to advance the status of science and the funding of scientific research. On the flipside, my view is that we must also be mindful of the threat of science and scientists being viewed as a political force".

Strength in numbers

What makes the 4th edition of this biennial event stand out is the perhaps never-before assembled range of speakers from all continents working at the boundary between science, society, and policy willing to make their voices heard.

In a truly 'Olympics' approach to getting all stakeholders on board, organizers succeeded in involving, amongst others, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the United Nations Development Programme, UNESCO, and the OECD. The in-house science services of the European Commission and Parliament, plus many country-specific science advisors also feature prominently.

As organizers foster informed debate, we get a rare glimpse inside the science advisory worlds of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation, the World Economic Forum, and the Global Young Academy to name a few. From Canadian doctors, educators and entrepreneurs, and charitable foundations like the Welcome Trust, to Science Europe and media organizations, the program is rich in its diversity.

The International Organisation of the Francophonie and a keynote address by H.E. Laurent Fabius, President of the Constitutional Council of the French Republic are just examples of two major draws on the final day dedicated to spotlighting advisory groups working through French.

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