Science advice: A tool for regional socio-economic benefit

The COVID-19 pandemic created a demand for science advice, with policy and decision-makers actively reaching out to the scientific community for guidance and solutions. The pandemic highlighted the importance of evidence-based policy-making, and the value of science advice, especially in crises.

The role of science advisors

The three hallmarks of science advice are its credibility, salience and legitimacy. It must be independent and not tied to any political agenda and should never be policy prescriptive, only policy relevant.

As described by Sir Peter Gluckman, president of the International Science Council and founding chair of the International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA), science advice requires a pluralistic synthesis of evidence, prior to knowledge brokerage.

This means that science advisors must be able to not only consider all aspects of science and technology, but also societal cultures and values which relate to public perception, trust and acceptance, as well as the potential economic implications of any advice in order to ensure that it is both relevant and practical.

They must also play the role of the ‘honest broker’, which means they must be able to disclose both the knowns and unknowns, including any gaps and shortcomings as well as alternative scenarios and solutions based on the best available information, and they must be able to package and communicate their messages in a manner that could be understood by policy-makers and political leaders.

In the face of constantly changing situations, with new evidence emerging every second, science advisors must also be flexible and receptive while being able to deliver their advice in a timely manner.

Science advice is not only pivotal for policy-making but is also critical for building diplomatic relations. In addition to COVID-19, the issues of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change, they need to consider cross-border and multi-disciplinary challenges which can only be solved with collaboration between all stakeholders and sectors of both local and international societies.

Sharing best practice

One facilitator of such international collaboration is the Southeast Asia Science Advice Network (SEA SAN), which is a pilot study by INGSA to trial a network for the rapid and real-time sharing of knowledge and best practice between countries to support policy-making in the region.

Since its inception in 2020, the network has demonstrated its value in enabling the open sharing of science advice, which is especially useful when certain data or information is lacking in one country but available in another. It also helps to strengthen the science-policy nexus, ie, by creating dialogue between scientists (knowledge providers) and political leaders and policy-makers (knowledge users) at the regional level.

In fact, there has been increasing recognition of the need for science advice in policy-making in the region. Promoting a science-society-policy interface is a central priority in the Science 20 (S20) Working Group Communiqué to the G20, chaired by Indonesia this year. There have also been ideas to communicate the significance of science advice as a tool for shared regional socio-economic benefit through Indonesia’s Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023.

The challenge is that Southeast Asia is one of the most diverse regions in the world, not only in terms of history and culture, but also in terms of its level of technological and socio-economic development.

Not all countries have clear structures and mechanisms for science advice and there remains a need for capacity building and support at the local and regional levels for research and evidence generation as well as for policy development and implementation.

A regional centre for advice and diplomacy

By focusing on certain issues of regional concern, such as COVID-19, pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change, as well as facilitating conversations between local and regional scientific and policy communities, as well as with other stakeholders such as industry and the public, the SEA SAN can guide, support and coordinate science advice and science diplomacy efforts within the region and contribute towards the translation of evidence into policies and meaningful actions.

It is hoped that, in the near future, the network can evolve into a regional centre of excellence in science advice and diplomacy while strengthening bilateral and multilateral ties through an appreciation of the value and utility of science advice and diplomacy for regional prosperity.

Professor Zakri Abdul Hamid is chair of the Southeast Asia Science Advice Network (SEA SAN) and former science advisor to the prime minister of Malaysia. He is also a founding member of the International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA) and a foundation fellow of the International Science Council. This article is based on the outcomes of the SEA SAN meeting held on 20 June in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.