06 Jul 2018   |   News

Academies join forces in fight back against policymakers ignoring scientific evidence

International Science Council unites 180 natural and social sciences organisations ‘to make the voice of science heard by those taking decisions’. One route to increasing influence will be to piggy-back the lobbying might of private sector research

The largest non-governmental international association of science was inaugurated in Paris yesterday, bringing together 180 academic organisations from around the world in a bid to increase the role of scientific evidence in public policymaking.

One of the main routes the International Science Council (ISC) sees of doing this is by improving relationships between public and privately-funded researchers, said Daya Reddy, the council’s newly elected president. Building partnerships with the private sector is “absolutely essential,” he told Science|Business.

Reddy aims to develop new links and channels of communication between people in private and public sector science so they become well known to each other. This is important given the private sector’s considerable influence on policymaking, and the fact that the new council wants to advise policymakers and present the scientific perspective on various issues, Reddy said.

ISC has been formed by two long-established bodies, the International Council of Science, representing natural sciences organisations, and the International Social Science Council, representing social sciences, and another objective of the merger is to underline that the two domains are interdependent, and to present a single voice.

“Research in natural sciences can no longer be thought about without the question of society,” said Thierry Coulhon, adviser for education, higher education, research and innovation to French president Emmanuel Macron. “Innovation and technology push individuals to adapt their behaviour, but they must be adjusted to the needs of society.”

Peter Gluckman, chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice and former New Zealand chief scientist agreed. “The polarisation of social sciences and natural sciences has been harmful to both, and you actually need both to make progress,” Gluckman told Science|Business. “There is nothing in natural sciences that doesn’t need social sciences.”

The need to have a single body representing natural and social sciences was exemplified by discussions at the meeting about the rapid societal changes now taking place, fuelled by digital technologies, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

The council’s launch is, at least in part, motivated by an attempt to keep on top of the changes prompted by these disruptive technologies. Xing Qu, deputy director general of UNESCO, said the 4th industrial revolution could happen very fast. Social and natural sciences must work together to navigate these changes, for example, studying the ethics of AI, human genome editing and managing the impacts of climate change, he said.

Building an academic-industry bridge

As a first step in building relationships with private sector scientists, the ISC is hosting a workshop on Monday (9 July) with companies including Airbus, to begin exploring possible cooperation and to work out general principles of how private sector research impacts society, and how that is regarded.

“Seventy percent of the research in the world is private-sector funded, much of what is happening is emerging from the private sector, and many scientists now work in the private sector,” Gluckman noted. “We use private sector science all the time.”

Much of this is beneficial, despite negative examples of the involvement of corporate science in controversies over tobacco, fossil fuels and diesel emissions, he says. “Clearly there’s been bad science in the private sector, but equally there’s been an awful lot of progress in the world that’s been the result of private sector science, so how we bring it all together is quite complex,” said Gluckman.

Reddy suggested one potential partner in creating stronger ties could be the Embedding Project, a global public-benefit research project that helps companies embed social and environmental factors across their operations and decision-making.

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