The world’s biggest scientific society is creating a helpline for policymakers as researchers worldwide take steps to address what they are seeing more clearly in the Trump era as glaring deficits of academic expertise in governmental decision-making.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s move to create the hotline for science-based questions has been accompanied by the National Science Foundation’s launch of a concerted campaign to provide more scientific assistance to US officials, saying that events of 2016 had made clear that it should take more seriously that key advisory aspect of its founding mission.
And, at last weekend’s annual AAAS conference in Washington, global delegates began work on similar efforts on an international basis, focused primarily on a deficit of expertise available to legislative bodies.
That international effort is based on a realisation that while presidents and prime ministers often have access to good scientific advice, members of their legislatures rarely do.
Some 90 per cent of legislatures worldwide do not have any proactive system for telling lawmakers the “things they do need to know but didn’t think to ask”, said a leader of the legislative project, Chris Tyler of UCL.
“Democracies don’t work properly if politicians can’t get their facts straight,” said Dr Tyler, the director of public policy in UCL’s department of science, technology, engineering and public policy.
Changing that will take large amounts of time, Dr Tyler said. After the AAAS gathering, he anticipated spending several years getting scientists in perhaps a dozen countries studying the ways they can better help their lawmakers.
The AAAS’ own effort in the US is moving faster. One of its organisers, Kei Koizumi, a visiting scholar in science policy at AAAS, said that he anticipated a hotline-style service that members of Congress could call with questions needing an academic expert.
Initiated with roughly $4 million (£3 million) in private foundation support over the coming three years, the operation known as EPI Centre will also devote resources to finding better methods of identifying key issues and knowledge gaps facing Congress and creating ways to address them.
The AAAS, with more than 120,000 individual members in 91 countries, has long seen its role as “acting as a convener and matchmaker of sorts”, said Mr Koizumi, who was a White House science adviser in the Obama administration.
Dr Tyler, who previously headed the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, said he welcomed experimentation but was wary of the idea of a telephone-style help desk service for lawmakers.
Directly connecting a politician to an academic scientist may work problem-free for about 80 per cent of enquiries, Dr Tyler said. But with politically sensitive questions, he said, it is critical to have a cohort of scientific experts with the training to answer in a way that does not put the entire operation under a reputational cloud.
“It’s actually more difficult than it sounds to just simply answer the question, because the more political the question, the more risk there is in answering it,” Dr Tyler said.
The National Science Board, the NSF’s governing body, is also looking to join in, said the board’s chair, Diane Souvaine, a professor of computer science and senior adviser to the provost at Tufts University. The board is still developing what that role might look like, although it has been clear “since 2016” that the US government needs better scientific input, Professor Souvaine said.