IRGC Session on Evidence-based Policies at ESOF 2014

IRGC Session on Evidence-based Policies at ESOF 2014

On 24 June 2014, IRGC and EuroScience jointly organised a session at the 2014 EuroScience Science Forum (ESOF 2014).

The session reviewed how evidence-based policy making and risk governance are tackled and implemented in various parts of the globe with a specific focus on the interplay between scientists, policy makers, stakeholders and the society at large, as well as government communication and the role of the stakeholders and lobbies. A session description is available here (pdf).

The main questions asked were:

  • When science is lacking for complete and meaningful evaluation of a risk, how can policy and regulation deal with the lack of scientific evidence?
  • Can effective and fair policies be not, or not only, evidence-based, but still be relevant and ethical?

The session was moderated by Clive Cookson, Science Editor, Financial Times,


Slide presentations of the speakers can be downloaded (pdf) by clicking on the presentation titles below.

Anne Glover – Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission
Risk and evidence: Some European reflections

Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor – Minister for Science and Technology, South Africa

Helena Bonciani Nader – President, Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science (SBPC)
How do Brazilian regulations deal with evidence in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity

Lan Xue – Dean, School of Public Policy & Management, Tsinghua University; IRGC China
Confronting Risks in Public Policy—Experiences from China

Jonathan B. Wiener – Professor at Duke University; Member of IRGC Scientific & Technical Council
Risk Policy: Evidence and Precaution in the USA and Europe


José Mariano Gago President, Laboratory Experimental High Energy Physics and Associated Instrumentation; Member of EuroScience Governing Board and IRGC Foundation Board

Dirk Hudig Secretary General, European Risk Forum

Doug Parr Chief Scientist and Policy Director, Greenpeace


Speakers agreed that science ought to support policies and policymakers must seek support from scientists. However, there is never “complete” science. We are always learning and sequential decision-making is needed, especially in situation of high uncertainty. This involves decision, evaluation and improvement.

Policymakers are those who hold accountability. They need to interpret and apply the evidence in a way that is compatible with values, cultures and opinions. Scientists must accept that not all political choices are based on evidence, because policy must overall reflect social choices. If it does not, it cannot be legitimate. Societal expectations always influence the design of policies, and a good understanding of social aspirations is necessary, in complement to a thorough use of science.

It is important to emphasise the need for transparency in the process, when policymakers seek scientific advice and consult with experts. This may avoid the misuse of science in making or communicating decisions.

As a society, we need to take risks to make progress. Innovation is a necessary risk taking activity, and analysis of regulation in various sectors indicates that Europe is neither more risk-averse nor more precautionary than the rest of the world. However, there are cultural and regional differences in how risk matters are prioritised, which explains variations in risk regulation in the world.

Innovation may lead to situations where potential damage can be caused by lack of attention to attendant risks. In this case, precautionary approaches can be considered while we are learning. However, precaution is meant to enable innovation, not to prevent it. In these cases, evidence needs to be combined with precaution, in the same way as expert analysis is combined with public input. One of the purpose of communicating about science and risk is the shaping of a society that embraces and demand innovation. It can for example put new technology in relation to the potential reward.

In situation of controversy or anxiety, leadership must engage with society, to help it make decisions. This is a new challenge in countries where the fight against poverty and inequality and the promotion of democracy is crucial. The need to rely on scientific evidence (for example, to combat HIV-AIDS or tuberculosis, or to overcome a “NIMBY” syndrome that prevents the development of technical innovation in industry) is balanced with the need to build trust. Trust is needed between the public and political leadership, as well as between the general public and scientific communities. Open and transparent communication can help, in the context of structured public engagement processes.

Communication of risk must as far as possible rely on evidence. If evidence is not used in policy-making, the process may be based on populism. However, in situation of emergency or crisis, policy-makers need to equally consider what causes fears and trouble to the economy or society. They must respond to pressure groups, even if this means that scientific-evidence will not be used as much as it could. A good communication between policymakers and lobbyists can trigger the development of better policies.

About ESOF

The Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) is the largest European general scientific meeting. At ESOF meetings leading scientists, researchers, young researchers, business people, entrepreneurs and innovators, policy makers, science and technology communicators and the general public from all over Europe discuss new discoveries and debate the direction that research is taking in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Session organisation:

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