By David Budtz Pedersen21, Co-Director, Humanomics Research Center, Aarhus University; Strategic Adviser, Danish Ministry of Science

Policy-making depends for its legitimacy on robust scientific advice, says Dr. Budtz Pedersen. But there has to be a fine balance between the roles of scientific adviser and policy-maker. It is not for scientists to make policy, or for politicians to bend or ignore science to serve their own political ends. Only if this balance is achieved can citizens be confident that they are getting ‘evidence-based policy’ rather than ‘policy-biased evidence’, as coined by Aidan Gilligan

Science-based policy-making has grown ever more important in recent years, in parallel with the dramatic increase in the complexity and uncertainty of the ways in which science and technology interact with society and economy at the national and global level. Installing a proper framework for ensuring the integrity of, and public trust in and support for, science is becoming an urgent task for European and global policy-makers.

People rightly expect politicians to be honest with the facts when they decide about public policies and future scenarios. This is why scientific evidence in policy-making is so important. In liberal democracies, policies are legitimate and accepted only if they are sufficiently justified, efficient and respectful of social and individual rights.22 Various scholars and policy-makers have contributed to the discussion on what a workable compromise between science and democracy may look like. On the one hand, it has been argued that we should avoid what the political theorist David Estlund has called an epistocracy, that is, a society in which the experts rule over the democratic polity.23 On the other hand, we should avoid dogmatism and any tendency towards irrational behaviour while making best use of the knowledge offered by scientific authorities and scientific guidelines. Science and democracy are based on a social contract shaped by different but often implicit social norms.

These norms can be schematised as follows:

  1. In a well-ordered society, democratic decision-making and public debates must be informed by a scientific approach to the relevant facts.
  2. Democratic decisions and public policies that deliberately ignore relevant scientific facts are illegitimate or otherwise normatively defective.
  3. The scientific community must inform policy-makers about facts and findings, where this is relevant, but should leave policy-making to the democratic process. In short, there should be a certain division of cognitive and deliberative labour, roughly corresponding to the division between facts and values.

At various points, scientists are faced with normative questions, but it is not the task of scientists or experts to try to determine the right answers to these. Rather, in so far as policy decisions depend on normative questions, it is for the wider democratic community to determine how to deal with them.24 Accordingly, simply listening to the best-qualified scientists for policy advice may not always ensure that research and development are conducted for the public good. Care must be taken to avoid the public paralysis that sometimes accompanies expertise. Studies of disasters – Challenger, Fukushima, or the financial meltdown – confirm that terrible events cannot always be avoided by listening to technical experts. Instead a much wider institutional design of filtering and translating scientific expertise into policy-making is needed.25

“Epistemic and political robustness” of scientific advice

Although it may seem obvious that policy should be informed by scientific understanding, and should therefore be evidence-based, this assumption is itself based on surprisingly little consensus or evidence. Debates continue, for example, about what exactly constitutes good evidence, where and how such evidence should be sought, and at what stage in the policy process different forms of evidence might be appropriate.26 That such debate persists reflects the fact that there are many open questions about the nature of science-policy interactions. Therefore, we need to ask not just how science can best inform policy, but also how policy and political processes can support the institutional arrangements for producing robust and reliable advice.

Sheila Jasanoff’s seminal study of science advisers shows that the value of science in policy stems in part from its capacity for detailed engagement with practical policy problems. At the same time, the authority of science depends on maintaining its independence from politics, in what has been coined as “boundary work”.27 In practice, however, experiences in different institutional contexts, both national and international, have brought about a much greater awareness of the processes of interconnection between science, politics, policy-making and the public.28 Justus Lentsch and Peter Weingart have provided an important contribution to the debate on the institutional design of scientific advisory organisations. In the collected volume The Politics of Scientific Advice (2011) they argue that the particular connection between scientific experts and policy-makers should be identified as an institutional mechanism by which two different forms of justification are united: on the one hand epistemic robustness that pertains to the quality of knowledge and, on the other hand, political robustness that refers to aspects of responsiveness and political legitimacy. According to Lentsch and Weingart, scientific advice must be epistemically and politically robust at the same time. Expert knowledge communicated by science advisers has to have a dual reference. It is not enough simply to meet the standards identified by epistemic criteria of validity and reliability. Rather, scientific advice must be scientifically sound and politically relevant and legitimate at the same time.29

In this context, epistemic robustness refers to the quality of knowledge in the sense of its validity and coherence. As the knowledge generated in advisory bodies responds to political problems and, thus, usually transcends normal disciplinary knowledge production, it has to meet the requirements of exactness and validity and at the same time leave enough space for public deliberation and decision-making. Instead of packaging knowledge claims in a well-ordered body of expertise that leaves no room for discussion, science advisers must open up science and consider the values, concerns, uncertainties and perspectives of those affected by the decisions and actions. Still, knowledge that is uncertain and ambivalent may be epistemically robust if the probabilities of the claimed functional or causal relations are sufficiently reliable. Political robustness of knowledge, on the other hand, refers to the acceptability and the feasibility to implement recommendations based on it. An advice is robust if it can be politically implemented and meets the needs of the policy-makers. Political robustness thus implies that the knowledge and preferences of the affected stakeholders are taken into account.30

Distinguishing between the two dimensions of justification throws new light on two common assumptions underlying most advisory arrangements: first, it reaffirms that good or sound scientific knowledge provides the best possible foundation for public policy (i.e. peer review), and second, it opens the way for scientists, policy-makers and citizens to engage in a common dialogue regarding the political robustness and relevance of the evidence in question.31 As Lentsch and Weingart further note, the quality of scientific advice to politics depends on the degree to which these two requirements of robustness are met. It is obvious that they cannot be met equally at the same time: “The overall question is: which form must expert advice have, and in which institutional arrangements must it be generated and communicated to meet the dual requirements of political acceptability and scientific validity? Phrasing the problem in this way means that the quality of expert advice to governments is primarily an issue of organisational design. The focus is on organisational conditions because they influence the quality of advice and, at the same time, they can be shaped by scientists and policy-makers.”32

Institutional design and science advisers

The question of the appropriate institutional design of scientific advisory bodies and how this affects the quality of the advice they offer, i.e. their capacity to bridge between science and politics, has been widely discussed in the scholarly literature as well as in practical policy-making. Upon taking office, the Obama Administration in the United States was strongly committed to promoting scientific integrity. On the basis of his concern that the sciences of climate change, stem cells, and evolutionary biology, were subject to political suppression under the former administration, Obama declared his intention to “restore science to its rightful place.” Soon after he took office, he issued a memorandum outlining his administration’s basic policy for scientific integrity and evidence. And US Science Adviser, John P. Holdren, later finalised a more detailed set of guidelines in collaboration with several government agencies for ensuring a wider use of evidence in policy-making. Worldwide, we have seen novel structures for scientific advice being established, both through new institutions like the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in the United Kingdom and through the appointment of Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover to the President of the European Commission. Add to this the various advisory bodies, covering a spectrum from think tanks, governmental policy-oriented research institutes to agencies and academies.33

The overarching need, particularly in the context of today’s complex societal challenges, is not so much for specific technical recommendations, or for certainty in the face of environmental and social complexities, but for the capacity to reflect on and cope with uncertainties, while making clear what science can and cannot do. In other words, scientific advice is not merely a body of information but a dynamic process. This process should have a clear task and mandate, yet in practice the responsibilities of advisory bodies are many and diverse. Some institutions, such as the US National Research Council, act as scientific academies, providing independent advice. The German Science Council seeks consensus among stakeholders and citizens, while the Danish consensus model stimulates negotiations over policy options and emphasises compromise so as to enable dialogue and build public influence. These international trends also highlight the importance of different national cultures in shaping responses to demands for credibility and legitimacy.34

Rebuilding Public Trust in Science

In spite of its importance however, the access to fair and qualified scientific advice is sometimes troubled, and periodically erupts into public controversy. Prominent examples include the debate over scientific understandings of climate change, disputes over the use of genetically modified crops, the failure to acknowledge the risk of the Japanese tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster, and the conflict over stem cell research, which is particularly acute in the United States.35 Still more recently, it has been debated whether there is a risk that ‘evidence-based policy’ turns into ‘policy-biased evidence’ with public research institutions and universities receiving an increasing part of their budgets in co-funding from the industry. Anne Glover, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, has said that she is “extremely uncomfortable” witnessing the lack of trust in some quarters at the role of industry in science. The suspicion that industry involvement in science is only geared towards profit threatens to derail European science. This is echoed in a recent Eurobarometer survey that documents that European citizens have lost confidence in science due to researchers’ dependence on industry funding. Today, close to three in five Europeans (58%) agree that “we can no longer trust scientists to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues because they depend more and more on money from industry” while only 16% of respondents at the EU27 level disagree.36

It is the role of the next generation of science advisers to find transparent ways and means to counter-balance this situation. Industry is the largest investor in science and should expect that the policy-making framework is set up to facilitate its success (e.g. “Innovation Union,” “European Technology Platforms”). Yet, as Aidan Gilligan’s Editorial argues, it is of great importance that science is independent and transparent. Vested interests must be disclosed and conflicts of interest avoided. Science must have an inherent integrity and quality, both individually and as a whole, underpinned by continuous peer review.37 Above all, research should avoid a battle-ground mentality and the promotion of incentives to keep negative research results undisclosed, or to translate publicly funded knowledge into private intellectual property that is concealed from the public. In post-Fukushima Japan, policy-makers have worked out a number of guidelines for a robust system of linking scientific advice to public policies that may serve as inspiration for other countries. The Japanese Science and Technology Agency’s Center for Research and Development Strategy has issued a policy proposal calling for measures to enhance the effectiveness and integrity of science-based policy-making. The proposal features a number of general principles on science-to-policy relations that is worth contemplating:38

  • Seeking scientific advice in a timely manner. The government must endeavour to identify policy issues that require scientific knowledge in a timely and pertinent manner and act to acquire the best scientific knowledge available.
  • Ensuring the independence of scientific advisers. Policy-makers must not intervene inappropriately in the activities of scientists and experts. As a means to ensure objectivity and fairness, scientific advisers shall declare any potential conflicts of interest.
  • Achieving broad perspectives and balance. When policy-makers seek scientific advice, they should strive to secure the participation of scientists with appropriate insight and experience matched to the nature of the issues and to obtain balanced and interdisciplinary advice.
  • Ensuring the quality of advice. Scientific advisers must strive for a balanced treatment of observational and experimental results and of cited papers and should improve the quality of scientific advice through peer review.
  • Proper handling of uncertainty. Scientific advisers must provide policy-makers with clear explications of uncertainties and diversity of views associated with scientific knowledge.
  • Even-handed treatment of scientific advice. Policy-makers must treat the scientific knowledge they acquire with fairness. They should not commission scientific advice with any preconception, distort scientific knowledge, or intentionally add wrong interpretations when using advice in policy-making.
  • Ensuring transparency of scientific advice. To improve the quality and reliability of policy-making, policy-makers must ensure transparency of the scientific advice process.

Scientific knowledge is an essential element in the policy process, and policy-makers must duly respect it. At the same time, scientific advisers must recognise that scientific knowledge is not the sole basis of government decision-making. In promoting relevant efforts and following normative principles such as those stated above, particularities of diverse policy and scientific fields must be given due consideration. Depending on national differences and scientific traditions, it is important to build greater trust among scientists, policy-makers and citizens through a long-term, sustained and participatory dialogue. Science advisers and other relevant advisory institutions can serve as “brokers” and “intermediaries” between science and policy arenas. With the increased focus among science policy-makers and funding agencies on the “Grand Challenges” of contemporary society, such as climate change, energy and food security, and sustainable resources, it is important to join efforts globally to provide the best possible scientific advice. Evidence-based policies are crucial for more effective and efficient policies and for addressing competitiveness and societal transformations. The effective implementation of “Horizon 2020” and related challenge-driven funding programmes requires strengthening the evidence-base and developing methodologies and tools that are oriented at assessing and translating scientific knowledge into the democratic decision-making process.


21) Co-Director, Humanomics Research Center, Aarhus University; Strategic Adviser, Danish Ministry of Science. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Jens Chr. SkousVej 2, DK-8000 Aarhus. The views expressed here are those of the author and may not in any circumstances be regarded as an official position.
22) EU Commission (2008). Scientific Evidence for Policy Making.Bruxelles, Directorate-General for Research: Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities.
23) Estlund, D. (2011). Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Estlund’s theory – which he calls epistemic proceduralism – avoids epistocracy, or the rule of those who know. He argues that while some few people probably do know best, this can be used in political justification only if their expertise is acceptable from all reasonable points of view. If we seek the best epistemic arrangement in this respect, it will be recognisably democratic – with laws and policies actually authorised by the people subject to them.
24) KlemensKappel (2012). Democratising Science: What could it mean? Keynote lecture at the conference “Democratising Science”. December 14, 2012. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.
25) S. Jasanoff (2009). “The Essential Parallel between Science and Democracy”, (, February 17, 2009.
26) Sutherland W.J., Bellingan L, Bellingham J.R., Blackstock J.J., Bloomfield R.M. (2012).“A Collaboratively-Derived Science-Policy Research Agenda”.PLoS ONE 7(3).
27) Gieryn, T.F. (1983). “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists.” Am Soc Rev 48: 781–787.
28) Nowotny H., Scott P., Gibbons M. (2001).Re-thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.
29) Lentsch, J. & Weingart, P., Eds. (2011). The Politics of Scientific Advice: Institutional Design for Quality Assurance. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.
30) Lentsch&Weingart (2011), p. 8-9
31) Lentsch&Weingart (2011), p. 10-11.
32) Lentsch&Weingart (2011), p. 9.
33) Contandriopoulos, D., Lemire, M., Denis, J.-L.& Tremblay, E. (2010). Knowledge Exchange Processes in Organisations and Policy Arenas: A Narrative Systematic Review of the Literature. The Milbank Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 4, 2010: 444-483.25 S. Jasanoff (2009). “The Essential Parallel between Science and Democracy”, (, February 17, 2009.
34) Bocking, S. (2013). “Science and Society: The Structures of Scientific Advice”. Global Environmental Politics 13(2): 154-157. 35) Sutherland W.J., Bellingan L, Bellingham J.R., Blackstock J.J., Bloomfield R.M. (2012).“A Collaboratively-Derived Science-Policy Research Agenda”.PLoS ONE 7(3).
36) Eurobarometer (2010).Special Report: Science and Technology. Brussels: European Commission.
37) Gilligan, A. (2012). “European scientists call for greater integrity, openness, clarity and public engagement from global policy-makers” Press Release 18 February 2012. Brussels: SciCom - Making Sense of Science.
38) Here, I quote in extenso from: Arimoto, T. & Sato, Y. (2012). “Rebuilding Public Trust in Science for Policy-Making”, Science, 7 September 2012, Vol. 337 (