In January 2012, a chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission was appointed. In 2015, the chief scientific adviser was replaced by a research council which takes the Commission’s queries out to Europe’s academic community to obtain expert opinion.

A link between researchers and politicians

Svenska 2017-04-27

Why a chief scientific adviser? To supply evidence for the government, create understanding between researchers and politicians, and act as a sounding board in discussions of research policy.

Since 2009, Sir Peter Gluckman has held the post of Chief Scientific Adviser in New Zealand. He believes that Sweden should also introduce such an adviser to work alongside the government.

“At a government level, everything has a scientific dimension so, even if you might not think it necessary, our experience is that this system is extremely valuable. In a crisis situation, where things need to happen quickly, it becomes even more important”, says Peter Gluckman.

Professor of paediatrics Peter Gluckman is a well-known figure within the research community, and is passionate about the interface between research and the wider community. Whenever there are discussions of scientific advice or scientific diplomacy, Peter Gluckman is seldom far away.

Sounding board in discussions

The role of chief scientific adviser for the New Zealand government involves various commitments. It can be a question of obtaining documented expert academic opinion within just a few days, which represents a major difference to the time it traditionally takes to produce enquiry results. It can also involve acting as a sounding board in discussions concerning long-term research policy.

One important function is to create understanding between researchers and politicians. Peter Gluckman provides information in both directions and creates points of contact – both formal and informal – which increases politicians’ awareness of research conditions and increases the researchers’ understanding of policies.

“Science cannot automatically be translated to politics. Politicians work with short-term perspectives and have limited room for manoeuvre because they have to consider both voters and resource distribution. As researchers, the worst we can do is to become arrogant and begin to believe that we know what politics is”, says Peter Gluckman.

Göran Persson’s adviser

In Sweden today, there is no longer a system incorporating a chief scientific adviser but, between 1999 and 2006, the government did have one. By the initiative of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Hans Wigzell – professor of immunology and then-president of Karolinska Institutet – became an adviser to Sweden’s prime minister Göran Persson. The position was of a more informal nature than in other countries, but Hans Wigzell recognises much of what Peter Gluckman says.

“It is not easy being a politician. They are always being courted in various ways whilst, at the same time, they must have their own agenda and ensure they are re-elected. Of course, politicians also find it very difficult to distinguish partisan claims from the truth. I tried to help with this.”

Hans Wigzell was available to answer questions and, when necessary, obtained expert opinion from academics. He also held courses on research conditions for members of the government. One important role was to act as a bridge between the prime minister and minister for education on the one hand, and the research community on the other.

“I invited interesting researchers out to Harpsund, and there we could spend 48 hours sitting with Göran Persson and the minister for education. It was both very relaxed and effective. There are otherwise few opportunities for such meetings and politicians can easily become quite isolated. I felt that I was able to enrich their days, as all gifted people find it exciting to meet good researchers”, says Hans Wigzell.

Too close to politicians

The most common criticism of having a chief scientific adviser is that they can end up being too close to the politicians and may be exploited as part of political games. Peter Gluckman takes pains to point out that he was both critical of the government and had contact with the opposition.

Hans Wigzell found that he soon came to be regarded as a social democrat during his time as adviser to (the Social Democratic party’s) Göran Persson which, according to him, is a gross simplification of his political views. When the coalition government came into power in 2006, they showed no interest in continuing either with Hans Wigzell or with any other scientific adviser.

The new Social Democratic government has also declined to appoint somebody new to the post. The reason for this is that other channels are available, according to Karin Röding, state secretary at the Ministry of Higher Education.

“We have an active research committee with whom the research minister met with great regularity ahead of the government’s research bill, the Ministry has two departments working with these issues, and part of the commission of the Swedish Research Council is also to provide the government with analyses of research policy.”

Creates informal contacts

The research committee comprises seventeen members from the Swedish Academy, which also allows for the creation of informal contact between politics and research, believes Karin Röding.

“There are quite a lot of people in the research committee, including youthful doctoral students, so this provides a large contact area. I myself was permanent secretary when Hans Wigzell held the post, and these functions can now be found in a broader context”, says Karin Röding.

One member of the research committee is Mats Benner, professor of science policy at Lund University. He believes that the role of chief scientific adviser is not compatible with Sweden’s political culture.

“It is somewhat striking that, in Sweden, there is no unified responsibility for this in the same way as in other countries, although we do have very large government authorities and quite a small ministerial sphere. Anything that can be perceived as being a level above the investigations and expertise of the authorities is not uncontroversial in Sweden.”

More common in Anglo-Saxon countries

In the modern era, the position of chief scientific adviser was introduced by American president Eisenhower following the surprise revelation that the Soviet Union had succeeded in becoming the first country to launch a satellite into space in 1957. Other democracies followed suit. The majority of the Anglo-Saxon countries (USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia) currently have chief scientific advisers and, in the view of Mats Benner, this is no coincidence.

“In these countries, there is a greater level of social conflict, which is also evident in perceptions of science and technology. They believe that there are a number of different interests in the area which must be articulated and compared against each other at a high level. Sweden is essentially an extremely technologically and scientifically optimistic society, where questions are not perceived to be controversial.”

Many countries that, like Sweden, do not have a chief scientific adviser have, instead, functions that perform a similar role. The German equivalent of the Swedish Research Council has committees and panels which continually review the work of the government. The Dutch equivalent of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is close to the government and has an advisory role.

Helps the country to move forwards

As the volume of information from research increases, the challenge of synthesising this for political use becomes greater. When Peter Gluckman asks academics for information, he always tells them that they must give some thought to whom they are writing for, as well as clarifying complex relationships.

“I always point out to them that they are not writing the report to demonstrate that they are experts – the aim of the report is to help the country to move forwards.”

Directly providing politicians with the necessary support to make informed evidence-based decisions in this way is more difficult within the Swedish system. Hans Wigzell contends that the system needs to be strengthened.

“Because historically – dating back to the time of Oxenstierna – we have had relatively strong authorities in Sweden, our government ministries are actually quite weak in terms of competence. This results in a dependence on the authorities, and the fact that the government lacks its own competence is actually quite frightening – it doesn’t create any sense of reassurance. In my view, this is a fragile system.”

Mats Benner agrees that the Swedish system is perhaps not ideal in the current climate.

“The model that Peter Gluckman talks about assumes that there is some sort of continual process of change, where it is important to be able to react quickly. This idea doesn’t quite fit in with the Swedish tradition of government, where society is seen as being constant and stable. At the same time, however, it is unfortunately the case that it is not the Swedish government that decides the situation for the rest of the world.”

Seven-person research council

One alternative to investing all the responsibilities of a chief scientific adviser in one person is to share them out within an organisation. In 2015, the EU replaced its scientific adviser with a seven-person research council: the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM). This council takes the Commission’s queries out to Europe’s academic community to obtain their expert opinion.

However, in the view of David Mair of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), this solution is insufficient. He is currently participating in the establishment of nodes, where experts and politicians can meet within a limited subject area. So far, two knowledge centres have been built – one concerning catastrophe management and one dealing with migration and demographics. David Mair believes these constitute extremely important network opportunities.

“As science becomes more and more specialised and complex, it becomes increasingly difficult for politicians to make decisions. It may be the case that the politician doesn’t actually want any more information, as this can complicate the decision-making process. Mechanisms such as SAM are not enough. We need networks to connect researchers and politicians. Science and decision-making can be seen as an ecosystem which, as in biology, is always changing”, says David Mair.

Gives research a face

The EU was heavily criticised when it abolished the post of chief scientific adviser because many believed that this devalued the importance of science within the Union. If nothing else, it shows that there is also an important media aspect – the role of chief scientific adviser gives the research community a face.

In New Zealand, Peter Gluckman is a well-known figure and he claims that public interest in research has increased since he was appointed. In other countries, chief scientific advisers use their status to highlight the threat of climate change in the media, or are held accountable when research in that country fails to produce successful results.

“We shouldn’t simply dismiss the system of having a chief scientific adviser. If nothing else, it is an acknowledgement that evidence is regarded as being so important that a person is actually given the responsibility of monitoring it and acting as a resource in such matters”, says Mats Benner.

Text: Dag Kättström
Photo: Fredrik Persson