Why a bottom-up blueprint is revolutionary

On 17th February, 2017 during the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Annual Meeting (AAAS), the Brussels Declaration was launched. This twenty-point blueprint for a new set of ethics & principles to inform work at the boundary between science, society and policy achieved over 50 million online views and tens of thousands of downloads in its first three months alone.

The Brussels Declaration makes the case for a multi-disciplinary approach encouraging greater integrity and accountability among all stakeholders. It brings together recommendations emanating from a series of five annual round-tables in which more than four hundred individuals from thirty-five countries drafted concrete proposals and novel thought-leader papers (www.sci-com.eu).

These were subject to further scrutiny during twenty-five symposia held at global conferences from 2012 – 2016, in which more than three-thousand delegates examined their findings on 'the science of science-policy-making'.

Representing this global collective, the AAAS launch panel included Naledi Pandor, South African Minister for Science & Technology; Prof. Michel Kazatchkine, UN Health Envoy on HIV/Aids; Prof. Julian Kinderlerer, Member, European Group on Ethics in Science & New Technologies (EGE); Dr Wilson Compton, Deputy-Director, US NIH, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); Prof. Kathryn O'Hara, Dept. of Science Broadcast Journalism, Carleton University Canada; Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand & Chairman, The International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA); and Aidan Gilligan, CEO, SciCom – Making Sense of Science.

Towards the Cape Town Declaration 2021

Since February, an entirely new 'Africa-55 Process (2017 – 2021)' has begun with an inaugural high-level consultation event taking place in Cape Town on 6 & 7 June.

Titled the 'African Science, Society & Policy Indaba (dialogue)', the aim is to prepare and launch a pan-African equivalent, the Cape Town Declaration, at the World Science Forum in 2021.

Minister Pandor was the guest of honour at the 6 June pre-dinner. Indeed, inputs from African nations have already been considerable since 2012. For example, the South African Mission to the EU hosted four of five general assemblies. Furthermore, on 8th December, 2016, the final public meeting to codify the Brussels Declaration text was held in Pretoria during Science Forum South Africa. Panellists there included inaugural 2012 Meeting Chair, Dame Anne Glover of Aberdeen University, formerly Chief Science Adviser to EC President Barroso; 2015 and 2016 Meetings Participant Professor Tateo Arimoto representing the Japanese government; 2016 Meeting Participant Dr Imraan Patel, Deputy Director General at the Department of Science & Technology, South Africa, and 2016 Meeting Discussion Lead, Dr Lidia Brito of UNESCO's Regional Office in Latin America and the Caribbean, formerly Minister for Science of Mozambique.

The Cape Town Declaration Process is taking a similar bottom-up approach involving the grass-roots with politicians, science advisers, chief scientific officers from industry, civil society leaders, medical doctors, social scientists, academics and science editors. Participants aim to boost understanding of how power operates in science & society and explain why evidence plus dialogue rarely equals good decisions and laws.

They argue that most policy decisions are informed by evidence provided by experts. All too often, who these experts are, how they are chosen and how reliable their advice really is, is open to question.

Perhaps too obvious to mention, but the key to promoting public discourse, scientific clarity, policy implementation and ethical balance across Africa is not only greater transparency and scrutiny, but genuine inclusivity.

Via real-life, policy-making case-studies, this decadal-long joint panel bridging the Brussels and Cape Town Processes will show that it is in all our interests that we benefit from 'evidence-based policy-making' rather than suffer 'policy-biased evidence'.

The African Science, Society & Policy Indaba 2017

On 7th June in Cape Town, delegates addressed twenty main recommendations stemming from five pivotal questions various Working Groups had examined:

  • What should be the relationship between science, society and policy?
  • What should we expect from the scientific community?
  • What should we expect from the policy-making community?
  • What should we expect from the public, industry, media and interest groups?
  • What needs to happen next?

Setting the global scene, Professor Kinderlerer set-out the back-story to the Brussels Declaration, underlining how it is today, more than ever, crucial that society demands greater transparency and inclusivity from its elected representatives and institutions.

Mr Daan du Toit, Deputy Director-General, International Relations, Department of S&T, Government of South Africa, gave a presentation offering personal insights into 'Policy-Making Opportunities & Challenges Across Africa'.

Looking at societal needs, Dr Kgosi Letlape, Chairman of the African Medical Association, flagged important lessons learned for substance addictions policy today with a talk titled 'Sex, Drugs & R&D: The HIV/Aids Experience'.

Looking at scientific responses, Professor Thomas Hartung, Chair of Evidence-Based Toxicology at Johns Hopkins University, examined 'Evidence-based Scientific Policy Advice: The Case of Chemical, Consumer Product & Drug Safety'.

The recommendations and outcomes of this inaugural meeting will be discussed during an informal side event aimed at pan-African delegates attending World Science Forum Jordan from 7 – 10 November, 2017. More detailed deliberations will follow during a high-level plenary at the 3rd Science Forum South Africa, taking place in Pretoria on 7 & 8 December, 2017.

Why this decade-long initiative can make a real difference

Almost all policy decisions are based on evidence provided by experts. Who the experts are, how they are chosen and what is the veracity of their advice is often open to question. Therefore this bottom-up, all-of-science and society initiative stands to have a considerable impact on the ways in which the practice of scientific research, the inputting of evidence to inform policy, and the 'taking' of advice is structured and delivered for two main reasons:

Firstly, this 'movement' started with a blank canvas. Everything was done not to prejudge outcomes, while creating confidence-building environments so that participants of all shades could speak openly about the good and the bad they encounter when science speaks to power because it has evidence.

Rather than reeling out a parade of truisms that everybody could agree, we set ourselves the task of establishing a new playbook to better address the practice, ethics and liability issues surrounding 'evidence-based policy-making versus policy-biased evidence-making'.

Secondly, we went to great lengths to shake up the status quo in confronting the usual 'top down' career professional scientific class with a balanced representation of 'bottom up' stakeholders or 'people', including doctors, patient groups, heads of R&D, civil society and media.

Bringing elites and decision-makers controlling policy and funding together with hands-on, bread and butter experts such as care-givers or leading scientists within drug, alcohol or tobacco industries was novel. Our philosophy remains that everybody's science is welcome under scrutiny. People bans or cherry-picking just does not work.

The back story to this experiment is rich with tales of skepticism and walk-outs to unbridled support and love-ins. Our gatherings prove that, sadly, there is something fundamentally wrong in how we go about evidence-making and evidence-taking. The knowledge institutions and authorities, which traditionally have been responsible for delivering facts, have multiplied. New players have joined, working to political and economic ends rather than factual ones. Think tanks, politically appointed commissions and expert groups are manifest. Yet, there are few checks and balances neither in place or means to contest when policies proposed by elite power circles are clearly not evidence-based nor in the interest of those tax paying citizens they are supposed to serve. And people's well-being suffers as a result.

The current lack of public engagement in fact-based decision-making has some people asking if we have entered a 'post-factual' era of democracy after Brexit and the Trump win. One in which the public identifies with populist rhetoric, celebrity authority, and information framed by algorithms and political campaigners. The Internet is to blame. Citizen science is a travesty. A world where the end justifies the means once a deal is done.

The truth is that the bulk of decisions have always been made based on fears and assumptions because people feel science and politics have left them behind and elected officials fear rocking the boat. Politicians often talk about regaining the trust of citizens, for example. When did they ever have it and more importantly, why should they? Scrutiny matters. Similarly, when was democracy ever purely 'factual' as if science once had a perfect feed-in relationship?
A political fact is something people become convinced of, but which is usually not actually true. A scientific fact is usually true, even where interpretation is open, but people find it increasingly harder to believe. And why should they when we are bombarded daily with promises of cures for this or that cancer, proof of life on Mars or doom and gloom estimates of mass extinctions etc.

Attention! These discussions should not mislead the science policy community to hasten to a conclusion and stray away from championing evidence. Yes, much of the information (including scientific) that is presented to citizens is immediately challenged by counter evidence presented by other sources/communities that have an interest in presenting their worldview. Discussions around cannabis, GMOs, MRSA, antibiotics, e-cigarettes, designer babies, TTIP are examples. But no, we should not give up on defending 'the right thing to do' when the scientific evidence is clear. We need to empower more science and indeed, societal actors to stand up, shout up and when necessary, tell others to shut up! This is not happening enough.
What the African Science, Society & Policy Indaba collective believes is quite simple: it is extremely important to restore confidence in science based not on top-down authority or even certainty but on 'methodological trust'. What we mean here is scientific knowledge produced by testing a hypothesis, valuing results, using transparent methods, declaring vested interests, submitting your ideas to criticism and revisions etc. This is superior to other types of knowledge. Furthermore, we are quite convinced it is the only way to defend modernity and democracy in the face of populism and authoritarianism. 

Our central premise is that science advice can never be accurate unless social psychology and humanities studies around information selection, confirmation bias, pluralistic ignorance, extremism, polarisation, decision-making, etc. are fully factored in. You can spend blood, sweat and tears on top of hard cash telling people that smoking and drinking kill but they do not moderate their behaviour. Similarly, as Kofi Annan put it "drugs have harmed many people but bad government policies have harmed many more".

At the forthcoming World Science Forum Jordan and Science Forum South Africa we aim to spotlight glaring inconsistencies whereby society and its policies both profess intolerance to certain behaviours while providing and even pushing the social settings to enable and make legitimate their use.

Speakers will tackle concepts such as dignity and autonomy as bedrocks of an ethical perception of our lives. For example, how do we differentiate between the responsibilities of individuals to look after themselves and the responsibilities of states to look after their citizens? Should society be allowed to step in and require individuals to accept norms regardless of their own beliefs?

In the end, the question of fact-based decision-making boils down to squaring science with this 'human factor'. A lack of literacy in the population is a red herring argument too easy for elites to peddle. The larger issue is the glaring apartheid system in science and the reluctance of established (perhaps entitled) gatekeepers to properly engage new voices offering robust evidence.

That is why our call for a new, bottom-up blueprint for evidence, ethics and principles is so obvious, yet revolutionary. It remains a work in progress, but an important start that began in Brussels in 2012 has certainly gathered momentum in Cape Town in 2017.

Aidan Gilligan
CEO, SciCom - Making Sense of Science
Elected Member 2015 - 2018, Euroscience Governing Board
International Adviser, Japan Science & Technology Agency (JST)
Member, European South African S&T Advancement Programme (ESASTAP)
Planning Group Member, International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)
Vice Chair, International Media & Marketing Committee, European City of Science 2018 Toulouse (ESOF)
International Adviser, Latin American & Caribbean Open Science Forum (CILAC)
Regional Contributor, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Regional Assessment for Europe