Five characteristics to build a strong scientific advisory system

28 February 2022

Scientific advisory systems are an aspect of evidence-informed policymaking that isn’t talked about much. They’re largely absent from research uptake and knowledge translation literature. 

Most of our efforts are placed on either evidence producers or users (supply or demand). This compartmentalisation is not useful because it forgets about those who do not fit nicely into one of these boxes. 

Like scientific advisors. They are both scientists and politicians – but also neither. A perfect example of a boundary worker

During the pandemic, we saw the rise of the celebrity scientist. In the UK, Chief Medical Advisor Chris Whitty became a household name after joining the Prime Minister’s daily press briefings. 

At the same time, in Peru, the Government was having to navigate through the scientific minefield presented by COVID-19 without a scientific advisory system – a blind pilot at the wheel.

A new report by Marcela Morales shares experiences and lessons on building scientific advisory systems from across the world, as part of a study, commissioned to inform the design of a scientific advisory system for Peru.

Lessons from across the world

Scientific advisory systems present an excellent opportunity to strengthen both the capacity to generate and use evidence in matters of public interest. 

Setting them up requires system-wide interventions that consider research systems, research organisations, policymaking bodies, political parties, the broader political system, and the broader evidence and policy ecosystem including the media, NGOs and professional bodies. 

According to Marcela Morales: ‘The success of a scientific advisory body depends on the balance between ad hoc entities and permanent bodies. Between scientific evidence and public policy considerations. And between “science for public policy” and “public policy for science.”’

To strike this balance, scientific advisory systems must incorporate the following five characteristics:

  1. Flexible and reliable: The system needs to be able to respond and adapt to changes in its context. It is impossible to predict the level of complexity that scientific advisers will have to address, and it is, therefore, necessary to allow the system to incorporate, replace or remove members, ad-hoc bodies or processes. At the same time, policymakers need to be able to rely on the system daily with clear lines of communication and engagement.
  2. Careful selection of the principal scientific advisor: Scientific advisors must be able to orchestrate a plural debate between and across disciplines and fields to articulate coherent recommendations. They must be respected scientists (even if they do not spend much time in the laboratory anymore) and skilful politicians (even if they are not running for office or hold executive positions in government).
  3. Public trust: Without public trust, scientific advisory systems are likely to fail. The system has to serve policymakers but must also be seen to be serving the public good.
  4. Autonomy: Scientific advisory systems must be operational and intellectually autonomous in the way they operate – even if they may have to respond to the needs and questions of their political masters.
  5. Representative and experienced: Inclusivity has at least two dimensions: (i) inclusiveness in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender and regional origin, and (ii) inclusiveness in terms of the need to include voices across the political spectrum and from different sectors (public, private, civil society).

Watch a conversation with Marcela Morales:

Read the full report: ‘Scientific advisory systems: experiences from across the world’, which includes an overview of key features and bodies of scientific advisory systems and response to COVID-19 in Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Spain and the UK.

The report was produced for the OTT Consulting project designing a scientific advisory system for Peru, funded by the British Council’s Newton Professional Development and Engagement programme. The project launched in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. We worked directly with the Peruvian Government – CONCYTEC, the national science and technology council – as well the British Council and the British Embassy in Peru. 

The report has been published with funds from On Think Tanks, supported by the Hewlett Foundation.