Science advice in a post-truth world

Posted on Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sir Peter Gluckman speaks at a podium in front of a banner displaying words such as diversity, ideas and innovation

Sir Peter Gluckman, who chairs the International Network for Government Science Advice, speaking at uOttawa on January 16, 2017. Photo: Dave Weatherall

By Sherry Wasilow

The need for good science advice is more urgent than ever, Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the prime minister of New Zealand, recently told a packed audience at the University of Ottawa.

“Science can be ignored, manipulated or even falsely constructed for particular ends,” Gluckman said. And while this is not new, “what’s changed has been the nature, speed and pervasiveness of communications. … In the ‘post-truth’ society, knowledge is considered irrelevant in the face of personal beliefs.”

Gluckman, who chairs the International Network for Government Science Advice, made the remarks during a presentation on January 16 entitled “Science Advice in a Troubled World”. This was the inaugural lecture in the Canadian Science Policy Lecture Series, co-hosted by the Canadian Science Policy Centre and uOttawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP).

In opening remarks, uOttawa President Jacques Frémont noted that Gluckman’s presentation could hardly be more timely for Canada. In December 2016, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan announced the government’s search for a chief science advisor, whose role will include providing the prime minister and cabinet with access to independent scientific analysis to aid their decision-making.

Gluckman underscored the need for universities to pay attention to how scientific research can be applied in the real world, and also how to better communicate with the public by expanding scientific media. In a world fraught with social media noise, simply “pushing more knowledge at people does not change their minds,” he said.

To effectively provide government decision-makers with reliable scientific information, Gluckman advocated a two-pronged approach: a science advisory group that is close to government decision-makers and can act as an intermediary to quickly translate and interpret information from a second, broader academy that supports and informs the first group. This partnership between government, science advisors, the broader scientific community, and the public at large requires building trust at all levels and refraining from scientific hubris, Gluckman said.

During the question period, ISSP Senior Fellow Margaret McCuaig-Johnston asked Gluckman to elaborate on how science advice is provided to ministers in a cabinet decision-making system. He drew on examples from New Zealand and the United Kingdom, where science advisors are appointed within each major government department. In the weeks leading up to a cabinet meeting on an issue, these advisors gather in committee to determine what advice they will offer – or to decide that further analysis is needed.

Almost 200 people attended Sir Peter Gluckman’s talk. Photo: Sherry Wasilow

ISSP Director Monica Gattinger said the Institute was delighted to host one of the world’s most respected chief science advisors, whose “outstanding talk not only laid out the definition of the problem but also a real road map for how we should go about addressing it.”

“Grappling with these issues is complex, but pivotal,” she said, adding that “the Institute’s current and forthcoming research focuses squarely on how to strengthen policymaking practices in this challenging governance context.”

Watch Sir Peter Gluckman’s presentation

Read the Ottawa Citizen report

Sherry Wasilow is head of operations at ISSP.

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