SDG Bergen

The rising voice of research in policy-making

When discussing sustainable development, terms such as science advice and the science-policy interface have become all the rage. What is this all about? We asked veteran researcher Silvio Funtowicz to provide some clarity on the subject.

Professor Silvio Funtowicz discussing scientific advice and the societal impact of research on 8 February 2019 at the second SDG Conference Bergen.
THE POWER OF SCIENCE ADVICE: Silvio Funtowicz discussing scientific advice and the societal impact of research at the 2019 SDG Conference Bergen.
Eivind Senneset for the University of Bergen

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At the 2019 SDG Conference Bergen, Professor Silvio Funtowicz from the University of Bergen (UiB) was one of the keynotes on day two. Inspired by the conference concept of re:thinking and re:working the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Funtowicz took a critical look at the SDGs, sharing his experiences on how researchers can provide scientific advice to policy-makers.

Advocating the knowledge of non-scientists

“I have been engaged in science advice, sustainable development and the use of science for governance and policy for decades. Providing knowledge that is relevant to support political and policy-value processes,” says Funtowicz on the emerging interest in the so-called science-policy interface.

He is, however, critical of those who equate knowledge with academic knowledge, and believes that a broader understanding of knowledge needs to be deployed. Something he has been involved in, encouraging citizen participation in knowledge creation.

“There is a lot of knowledge that goes beyond disciplinary science which is just as effective and relevant to political decision-making, such as the knowledge of fishermen and farmers,” he says, ”and in that sense the emergent science diplomacy, enables to relate a variety of knowledge sources, coming from a variety of countries and traditions.”

The struggle to find the right language

In the panel discussion following Funtowicz's keynote several speakers mentioned science advice to policy-makers. However, how do researchers make their voices heard?

Funtowicz believes that one of the main challenges for academics is to be clear about what problem you are being asked about, and to adhere closely to the brief you are given.

“The problem for academics is that they are not used to the political-institutional ecosystem. Moreover, in that system, it can be a struggle to find the appropriate language. In an institution like a university, there is great freedom. Nevertheless, when you give advice to policy-makers, you must listen to, and study the context in which your advice or opinion will be used. Understanding how the policy-makers themselves understand the problem is a first and necessary condition.”

Even with these restrictions in mind, he believes that researchers have plenty of space to present their ideas to policy-makers, as long as they understand the policy subject and the context.

Tailoring your policy brief

One of the most common ways of providing science advice to policy-makers is via a policy brief. A short print or presentation containing policy recommendations based on scientific findings.

“Your policy brief has to be tailored and customised to the process,” Funtowicz states.

“However, it is just one element of the relevant knowledge, and is mostly a kind of reflection on the evidence. The brief might have diverse functions, and works differently depending on the circumstances. You have to be aware that it is different if you talk to a minister or to Parliament, and the brief should reflect that.”