With scientific advice to the government scrutinized in the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, population biologist Professor Sir Charles Godfray focused the final lecture of the Green Templeton Lecture series 2022 on the different ways experts provide advice in the public realm. Oxford PharmaGenesis Associate Medical Writer Luke Bratton and Communications Director Tim Koder report.
Taking place at the University of Oxford’s Green Templeton College on Thursday 17 February, ‘What does it mean to be an honest broker?’ was the last of three lectures convened by University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The series explored the relationship between science and the media – a relationship that’s come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Identifying the ‘honest broker’
Charles Godfray is Director of the Oxford Martin School and Professor of Population Biology at the University of Oxford. In his lecture, he defined the concept of an ‘honest broker’ by outlining the potential roles that a scientist can play in the interaction between science and policy:
- pure scientists: who concentrate on science;
- arbiters: scientists approached to directly address a problem;
- advocates: scientists who focus on implications of research to advance a particular agenda; and
- honest brokers: who employ impartiality and transparency to integrate scientific knowledge and stakeholder concerns.
For areas of scientific concern where policy outcomes are required, these honest brokers independently summarize the natural science evidence base.
Scientists wouldn’t normally make conclusions based on weak evidence. A medical scientist, for example, would not make a treatment recommendation based on preliminary observational research. But at a time of policy need, a policy-maker might not be able to wait for the outcomes of a more robust study to inform their decision.
Restatements: scientific summaries for non-specialist policy-makers
The Oxford Martin School have produced several Restatements; publications which review a natural science evidence base underlying areas of current policy concern – and controversy.
Written for an informed, but non-specialist, audience, Restatements feature a summary of the scientific background of the topic, followed by summaries of each part of the evidence relevant to policy-making decisions.
Each piece of evidence is tagged with a code to identify whether it is based on strong evidence, a consensus expert opinion, some supporting evidence, or projections/assumptions. A detailed references section highlights relevant publications, allowing policy-makers to refer to reliable further evidence.
Restatements bring together subject experts from a range of institutions to represent differing viewpoints. The author group review each paragraph and revise the Restatement until the entire group is satisfied. Restatements can be reviewed by up to 50 stakeholders before undergoing traditional peer review and publication, and published Restatements are open access.
The first Restatement, published in August 2013, tackled the complex issue of bovine tuberculosis. Since then, they’ve explored topics like the health effects of low-level ionizing radiation and neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators.
Lessons learned from Restatements
Godfray suggested that the Restatement format is trustworthy owing to the expertise involved, the large number of reviewers and the independent nature of the project (they are self-funded by the Oxford Martin School).
However, he added, it’s difficult to ‘scale up’ publication, because it can take a lot of time to create a single publication.
A key requirement for a Restatement is a clear policy-related question. Restatements aren’t ideal for simply summarising an area (e.g. the use of insecticides in farming), but they are helpful for answering a specific question (e.g. how do neonicotinoids affect insect pollinators such as bees?).
Critiques of Restatements
Restatements are largely well-received, but some critics worry that policy-makers might ‘cherry-pick’ information to suit their agenda. According to Godfray, there’s little indication this has happened so far. And, he added, it’s likely that if a policy-maker quoted a Restatement out of context, it would be clear where this information came from.
Another concern is the tendency for some people to be suspicious of expert judgement; this has been seen during the pandemic, where experts in the media have been painted as untrustworthy.
In response, Godfray highlighted how some degree of expert opinion would always be required in the absence of rigorous evidence from randomized controlled trials. Restatements are collaborations between a range of experts, with an even greater number of reviewers. They provide rigorously vetted expert opinions of the available evidence from ‘behind the scenes’, rather than ‘on stage’.
Read more lecture reports
Oxford PharmaGenesis are proud sponsors of the Green Templeton Lectures 2022. You can read our colleagues’ reports on the other two lectures in the series on our news pages.
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