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Knowledge4Policy
KNOWLEDGE FOR POLICY

Supporting policy with scientific evidence

We mobilise people and resources to create, curate, make sense of and use knowledge to inform policymaking across Europe.

Blog Post

Policymaking, a formidable task

I re-post this entry on the Commission staff Working Document from the Marie Curie Alumni Association blog

 

A man in a hot-air balloon is floating along and gets lost in a cloud. When there is finally a break in the cloud he sees a person on the ground and decides to descend to ask for directions.

The balloonist descends and hovers over the man on the ground and asks him where he is. The man on the ground shouts back, “You are at 45 degrees, 25 minutes, 29 seconds north, and 75 degrees, 42 minutes, 20 seconds west. I am standing at 100 metres above sea level, so you must be at about 120 metres.”

The man in the balloon replies, “You must be a scientist. I ask you a simple question, and you give me too much information and I’m still lost.”

The man on the ground calls back to the man in the balloon, “You must be a policy analyst. You came out of nowhere with your questions, I give you the most accurate and precise answer I can, you’re still lost, and you blame me!” [1]

 

I have come across this funny story on social media many times in various versions, but I find that this adaptation captures particularly well some of the most significant challenges around science policy.

We are living in a world that demands answers to highly complex problems. From the COVID-19 pandemic, to climate change, from the green transitions to artificial intelligence. At the same time, never have we had access to such an incredible wealth of scientific knowledge and expertise to accurately and effectively tackle some of the “wicked” problems [2] of our time.

Yet, as much as our two characters in the story above, we are often caught in what has been called the “technocrat’s dilemma” [3] — never has science and expertise been more needed but never has it been more questioned.

A recent document by the European Commission launched last October 2022 tries to re-frame the conversation around policymaking offering an important source of insights for those who want to delve deeper into the EU’s science-for-policy work. In its 39-long-page paper entitled “Commission staff Working Document” (SWD), the Commission aims at supporting and connecting policymaking in the Member States with scientific research by stimulating a broad discussion on science-for-policy structures, processes, competences, and practices across Europe.

SWD provides a comprehensive rationale for capacity building for science for policy, identifies key challenges at the science-policy interface, and points to policy frameworks, support instruments, and good practice at both EU and national levels that can help actors in Member States address these challenges.

In a time when public trust in science has reached new height, with people trusting scientists (43%) more than in national government (26%) and journalists (19%), [4] the document highlights how 68% of Europeans agree that scientists should engage more in political debates to make sure that decision-making also takes scientific evidence into account.

But what I personally found most fascinating about SWD was its emphasis on the role of boundary organisations to help with knowledge translation, synthesis and cross-sectoral collaboration. In this context, the Marie Curie Alumni Association has a lot to offer! The association provides invaluable knowledge exchange and brokerage services to connect science and policymaking through its extensive network and capacity to talk across borders.

In the document, policymaking is defined as a “formidable task” that ensures that “decision-makers have access to the best available science when they need it, in a format they can use, and which is trusted by citizens”. Indeed this is a momentous challenge that calls for further efforts to make connections and reinforce trust between scientists, policymakers, stakeholders, and the general public, and our association is uniquely placed to do just that.

At the upcoming MCAA Annual Conference, we will unpack more on science policy in a dedicated panel session looking in particular at the recently launched JRC’s “Competence Frameworks for Policymakers and Researchers working on Public Policy” with JRC’s Science for Policy Analyst Lene Topp. Watch this space!

References:

[1] Wren, L. Sarah. Creating common purpose: the integration of science and policy in Canada’s public service. Canadian Centre for Management Development, CCMD Roundtable on Science & Public Policy, 2002.
[2] Ritter, H. W. J. and Webber, M. M., ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, №2, 1973, pp. 155–169.
[3] Stern, A. ‘The Technocrat’s Dilemma’, The New Atlantis, №69, Summer 2022, pp. 56–60, TheNewAtlantis.com, April 25, 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/thetechnocrats-dilemma
[4] Wellcome Global Monitor, How COVID-19 affected people’s life and their views on science, Wellcome Trust, London, 2020.

Author

Antonino Puglisi is an Italian research chemist based in London. He has been working in different countries including the UK, Turkey and Austria. Antonino is currently Senior Scientist at Nanomerics Ltd in the UK. He is also an active member of the Science Policy Working Group of the Marie Curie Alumni Association.