Science Advice to Governments Conference – What is science policy?

The Franklin Women blog will be used as a platform for members to share what it is like to spend 'a day in their shoes'. This is a great way to showcase the different careers women trained in health sciences pursue and how they got there. So, I am going to start the ball rolling...

My name is Melina Georgousakis and I am a Senior Research Officer in the Policy Support team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS). Before joining NCIRS nearly 5 years ago, I was a PhD student, then post-doc, at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (but I will tell you a bit more about that in coming blogs). I am also the founder of Franklin Women, which has resulted in a slight addiction to caffeine. You can read more on how Franklin Women (and the coffee addiction) came about in a recent blog I did for Women in Science AUSTRALIA.

For the last three days I have been in NZ attending the first Science Advice to Governments Conference so I thought I would use my first blog post to briefly introduce the concept of science policy. So, what is it? Science policy relates to the forming of public policies for issues underpinned by science. Examples include the development of policies for immunisation (my field), climate change, coal seam gas etc. As policies are part of the political process, many considerations inform their development. For science policies one of the main considerations (in most cases!) is the current scientific evidence on the issue at hand. The aim of the conference in NZ was to talk about the processes, mechanisms and challenges associated with providing advice on scientific issues to government and where the practice of evidence based science policies can be improved. Attendees included many of the players who provide science advice to governments including formal science advisors (eg Chief scientists), scientists and policy makers/analysts (those who turn the evidence provided by scientists into policies). You can see from the conference program the breadth of the topics discussed and also the sentiments expressed by participants in the conference blog. However, I have noted a few take home messages that resonated with me as a basic research scientist who now carries out research that informs health policies:

  • There are many different mechanisms that offer opportunities for scientists to provide advice to governments. In Australia these are within government (chief scientists, science bureaus, government research institutes) and external to government (advisory bodies, commissioned research, consultations/submissions). A great overview can be found here.
  • There is a difference between science for policy (research that informs the development of policies) and policy for science (policies that are put in place to better the science sector).
  • Clear communication of science is important. For me, this resonated a lot and I think an area we scientists/researchers can do better. Ensuring we clearly communicate our research, and what it means in terms of the bigger picture, increases the likelihood that our research is understood and in turn has impact (where did this idea come from that if we throw around really big words it adds value to our work?).
  • Collaboration between scientists and politicians is necessary. To get the most out of these interactions both parties need to show understanding, respect and empathy for the context within which the other works.
  • Their needs to be more scientifically trained professionals providing science advice to Governments, both in and outside of Government settings. Throughout the conference examples of successful policy internships and graduate programs for scientists in place overseas were discussed as well as how similar programs could be built in Australia.

There are also two non-science take home messages from the conference I need to share….

One. Women are grossly underrepresented in the science policy space. Never before have I entered the room of a conference and the first thing that I noticed was that I was a women. The majority of participants were men over the age of 50 and few of the 5 panels included women. Why? Probably a few reasons like the fact that individuals typically take on science advisory roles later in their career (and we know women are underrepresented at the top in science due to a number of systematic/cultural reasons); and stereotypes around the type of person someone needs to be to work in politics. The good news is that numerous people in the audience (women and men) brought this to the attention of the conference organisers and I am sure it won’t be the same next time!

Two. I found my new science hero in Professor Anne Glover. I must have been living in a box for last 5 years as I didn't know who she was until she delivered her plenary "1000 days in the life of a Chief Scientific Adviser”. Anne is a molecular biologist and still has an academic position at the University of Aberdeen (as well as an honorary position at UNSW!). She was appointed the first Chief Science Advisor in Scotland in 2006 and in 2010 become the Chief Science Advisor to the President of the European Commission. As she delivered her plenary Anne was refreshingly honest, passionate, engaging and accessible. All these qualities did not take away one bit from the fact that she is intelligent, strong, and resilient, and can hold her own in a male dominated field.

Anne Glover presenting an image of her first day on the job (and lots of mens heads in front).

Anne Glover presenting an image of her first day on the job (and lots of mens heads in front).

Below I have listed links to fellowships for scientists to gain experience in science policy that are available overseas. I am yet to come across something similar in Australia (please let me know if you know of something). However, many Australian universities offer graduate programs in either public policy in general or health policy specifically. Personally, I completed a master of public health with a focus on health policy. But I will tell you more about my journey into health policy in my next blog.


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