Dutch MPs trial new ‘gold standard’ for scientific scrutiny

Parliaments routinely seek scientific advice, but a Dutch pilot goes one step further, asking academics to directly critique what the government is proposing

September 29, 2020
Two men in costume look at the model of the great tsars crown of the Russian Empire at the Hermitage in Amsterdam
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Academics have been brought in to directly scrutinise Dutch legislation, chiding the government for vague policy goals and aiming to offer lawmakers evidence-based alternative policies.

While lawmakers the world over routinely get advice from academics, the Dutch pilot scheme, which aims to become a “gold standard” for scientific scrutiny, goes a step further and asks researchers to directly analyse new legislation.

“What is very new here is that with this approach, you get into the heart of the policymaking process,” said Pieter Duisenberg, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), one of those behind the new scheme and a former centre-right lawmaker himself.

The idea is that committees of the Dutch parliament will be able to call in two academics to scrutinise government proposals. They will judge whether policy aims are specific and how success should be measured and can suggest alternative, science-backed ways of achieving the same objectives.

These external researchers will be picked by parliamentary research assistants with the aid of the VSNU and other scholarly bodies – meaning politicians will not be able to choose the academics themselves.

So far, in a pilot running this year, university academics have analysed three new pieces of legislation on issues ranging from citizenship education to outlawing anti-democratic criminal organisations. Dutch lawmakers are now mulling whether to adopt the process permanently.

The aim is to get academic scrutiny into the “DNA” of the legislative process, said Mr Duisenberg. Scientific fact sheets and expert hearings for lawmakers will remain part of the process, he added, “but this is a big additional step”.

This push for more expert scrutiny has its roots in a 2018 law that demanded new legislation must spell out its goals and explain how it will effectively and efficiently achieve them.

But some lawmakers say this has not been properly followed – meaning stricter academic oversight is now necessary.

During the pilot this year, it was a “common complaint” from academics called in to evaluate legislation that the government was “too vague” in its aims, said Joost Sneller, a liberal lawmaker helping to push the new system through.

For example, a proposed shake-up of citizenship education aims to increase “social cohesion”, he explained, but there was little detail about how this would work or how it would be measured.

There is “legitimate criticism” of the pilot in that it is “too New Public Management”, he admitted – that is, it assumes that “everything can be measured”.

But it has broad interest in the Dutch parliament, he said, except from parties on the far right and far left.

Both Mr Duisenberg and Mr Sneller said they were unaware of any other system of such close academic scrutiny of legislation in other countries.

The Dutch scheme, dubbed a “gold standard” of expert oversight by the VSNU, certainly goes further than the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, for example, which produces oral and written briefings on scientific topics, and organises events, but does not directly judge legislation.

There are some parallels with the United States, however, where lawmakers can request reviews of legislation from academic bodies including the national academies, explained Jason Blackstock, an associate professor at UCL, who has researched national science advice systems.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Trial lifts scrutiny to ‘gold standard’

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Reader's comments (2)

Scientific advice can only tell you how to do something and what the consequences might be, not what to do in the first place: it doesn't tell you whether to make nuclear bombs or nuclear power stations, but can tell you how. That said, most scientists (including the WHO, Vallance and the Imperial report) have been clear from the start that actually eradicating novel coronavirus has been effectively impossible since it successfully broke out of Hubei Province. "Beating the virus" is simply not an option - we have been evolutionarily outclassed by an organism whose direction of travel towards becoming endemic within the wider human race is now effectively complete. This simple reality is however clearly indigestible to an entire generation of politicians, despite its obvious policy implications for managing the virus effectively (that is, in a way that minimizes poverty, suffering and death at the population level). As a consequence of this denial, we flip-flop around, remaining in a near constant state of panic and shock, while effectively engineering the single greatest poverty-creation event since the Second World War. And if science has told us something else, it is that from widespread poverty comes greater disease.
Not sure academics are much use where there is not a body of knowledge developed. Coronavirus good example. A lot of academics were completely out to lunch as there was no time to do any science. Not to say there is not room for experts and science. Issue is when there are no experts on something new such as coronavirus and the science had not been done. Just getting opinions from academics posing as science. Science unfortunately though takes time, sometimes a lot of time

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