Taking Science in the decision making process – A talk by Prof. Thierry Courvoisier

Prof. Dr. Thierry Courvoisier, President of Swiss Academy of Arts and Sciences, was one of the two guest speakers we invited for our Swiss Day in Fudan University. This text is the written version of a talk given June 10 2014 at the occasion of the general assembly of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Prof. Courvoisier’s talk was one of a few given by international personalities at the invitation of Prof. Chunli Bai, the president of the CAS. In his invitation the CAS president asked that following questions be discussed in our presentations. In his words:

1) how to select a meaningful strategic study topic;
2) how to ensure the independence and impartiality of a strategic study and report and
3) how to maximize the impact and wide outreach of strategic studies and reports.


Problems with which modern civilisations are confronted everywhere in the world include climatic changes, bio-diversity loss, energy use and transformation, societal issues related to genetic technologies among many others. Dealing with these issues requires a deep knowledge of many aspects of all sciences, be they natural, technical, medical or societal. One cannot, indeed, expect to keep global warming within bounds without understanding how the energy flows from the Sun into the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and other components of the Earth. Developing new and “clean” technologies will also be inevitable to keep our living space in shape for the development of human civilisation. Finally working on natural sciences and new technologies will be insufficient. Societies will need to adapt their behaviours to meet the restraints of a finite environment. In this and other fields, progress demands interdisciplinary approaches. Efforts to bring the corresponding knowledge in the political decision making processes is one of the main responsibilities of academies worldwide.

Science has been increasingly decoupled from the political world in Western civilisation since the end of the second world war. Many, if not most, of the political decision makers nowadays have no or little scientific culture. They followed paths during their education and studies that are most of the time very far from “hard” sciences. This gap increases the urgency of establishing as close ties as possible between the active scientific community and the rest of society. Also a prime responsibility of academies.

Switzerland’s science policy landscape differs vastly from that in China. For one thing, scaling the number of members of the Chinese academy of sciences by the ratio of populations in Switzerland and China shows that a Swiss academy built on similar grounds to the CAS would have 3.5 members.

In Switzerland, roughly two thirds of the research is performed within the private sector, the pharmaceutical concerns for example. Institutional research is performed in universities or higher education schools, where very roughly two thirds of the available funds are institutional, while the last third is project oriented funding channeled through the Swiss National Science Foundation or private sources. The Academies are in charge of bringing Science to society, they do not run research institutes.

There are four academies in Switzerland, the academy of natural sciences, that of medical sciences, that of technical sciences and that of humanities. Most of the work of these academies is contributed by scientists employed elsewhere, typically in universities. They devote a fraction of their working time to the tasks of the academies, for example by contributing to studies and reports or through other means of interaction with society at large or decision makers within the state or parliament. These scientists are supported by a small professional staff within the respective academies. This way of working, called militia in Switzerland, relies on the willingness and generosity of individual scientists and the support of their employers, who accept that part of the time of their professors and researchers is spent on academy related tasks. While some of the Swiss academies have individual members, all rely on a very broad network of active scientists covering all domains of knowledge. This allows the academies to access a rich asset of competence. One of the more problematic issues related to this way of working is that the academies are perceived, and rightly so, as rather diffuse entities, rendering their communication somewhat difficult.

The Challenges of Bringing Science in all levels of society

All the problems confronting us are complex. There is no simple way out. Slogans will not suffice either to grasp the facts or to design solutions. Scientific advice is, therefore, difficult to formulate in simple ways. Understanding the description of the phenomena taking place and following the different avenues that scientists may have sketched requires time and effort, not always compatible with the requirements of a public life. To enter into a constructive dialogue between society and science requires in addition a mutual willingness to interact, also sometimes difficult to find.

The dialogue between research and society is made even more difficult by the fact that science is about doubts rather than certitudes. Scientists are therefore inclined to express their views with a prudence that may cloud the points for those not used to their way of discussing. In addition to this cultural barrier comes the fact that measurements, predictions and extrapolations all come with uncertainties. Dealing with those also requires some familiarity with at least the basics of statistics, again making the transmission of even the facts and observations to outsiders arduous.

Scientists do not always agree among themselves. In domains that are close to the limits of knowledge these disagreements are one of the powerful tools to make science progress. These discussions and the culture of sometime systematically arguing all points can sometimes render communication with outsiders quite ineffective.

Not only scientists do not always convey their messages in an optimum way. Society also asks questions in ways that are not easily transcribed in terms that can be dealt with scientifically. Questions can be very broad and formulated in a rather diffuse manner. An example here might be the questions related to the acceptance of genetically modified organisms in our societies. This subject touches on issues related to security, biology, ethics, industrial practice and economics in many different geographical environments. Going from the political questioning to a set of questions that can be scientifically addressed is already a long path.

Important here is also to note that that advice given on scientific ground may have very large consequences directly or indirectly for a given economy. The stakes are high and tensions can easily arise between scientific, economic and political actors.

Finally, the perception of scientific facts can be rather perplexing. The public does, for example, not always accept some of the best established facts, like the warming of the atmosphere and oceans, although these have been measured beyond any reasonable doubt. On the opposite side, many people sometimes believe rather odd stories that are being published, discussed and often widely aired by radio and television. The existence of planet X, the expected “end of the world” in 2012, or creationism are examples of sometimes widely accepted pseudo-scientific beliefs based on inexistent evidence.

Science and Power

Researchers seek fundamental or applied knowledge. Science is, however, also economic and political power. This is nowadays certainly true of bio-engineering, energy transformation related issues, electronics and many other domains. In some areas, those who control knowledge even control livelihood. This is particularly true in the agro-alimentary business. Some companies control seed production and/or vitally important production elements. These companies have the means to influence the food production and hence possibly the livelihood of large human communities to a non negligible level.

A related issue is that of the publication versus patenting of research results. As a general rule publicly funded research results in research papers that are publicly available. Results obtained through private funding on the other side are protected by patents and decisively contribute to the wealth of companies. Some results are even kept within the boundaries of companies. Thus a significant body of knowledge is not available for the steering of public policies by independent individuals or state authorities.

Independence of the Advice

The mantra is that advice given, for example by academies, with the aim of informing public policy makers should be independent. What is meant by this independence must, however, be specified.

Whereas it seems clear that those giving advice or generating synthesis of complex knowledge addressing important public issues should be free of vested, e.g. financial, interests, other aspects of independence are more difficult to assess. Scientist engaged in this process are often also part of a number of other structures embedded within society. They are members of a variety of committees or councils, some, like medical doctors, engineers or lawyers, may have private activities and customers beside their scientific activity. This type of exchange between different elements of society are rightly encouraged. Researchers should be active members of the society in which they live. Scientists also have opinions, interests in various aspects of life, passions and convictions. Scientists, like everybody else, love, dislike, hate or are indifferent to other people, or groups. All these facets of individuals have their weight in forging an advice in a given problematics. Advice is not and cannot be independent from these influences.

Advice must also be independent from the state. Authorities may be advancing projects or policies which may be at odds with with scientific appreciation or evidence. Such conflicts can arise for example, when weighing economical growth on a limited territory against biodiversity issues . There is a large number of such potential conflict areas. In this case government staff may not be free to express the scientific views that oppose the policy or development. And whereas the state may have very good reasons to pursue its route, scientific knowledge and evidence must repeatedly be put forward and should not be forgotten or ignored. Independent scientific bodies, like academies, are essential partners in these situations.

It is also difficult to give truly “independent” advice to the organisation that pays one’s salary. This may be a difficult issue. Indeed academies, or whatever organisation giving advice, must be financed one way or another. Industries cannot do this, as the advice would then be coloured by their interests. The state is therefore most of the time the entity funding academies through some arrangement. Academies must then be strong enough to still give information and advice publicly, even if doing so does not correspond to official policies. The state on the other side must recognise the value of advice that is not servile and continue funding the organisation providing this service independently of the positions taken.

All these limits to independence must be understood by all parts in the game. In the end, the quality and the independence of academic inputs to policy making rely to a large extent on the individual responsibility of those taking part in the process. There are, however, a number of rules and good practices, often publicised in guidelines. These include that the interests, mainly, but possibly not only, financial, of the experts be publicly known. Groups of advisors with different backgrounds should be used in the process to avoid obvious biases. It may also be interesting to consider what other bodies in other parts of the world may have said on a particular issue. Understanding divergences and agreements between positions taken in different parts of the world can greatly help shedding light on complex issues. Easier to implement: The procedures used to obtain a result, write a report or develop a position should be explicitly described and communication should be as transparent as possible.

These and other elements that can be found in various national or international contexts should allow for a solid and in the end as “independent” advice as possible.

Advice on what?

It is not only difficult to provide advice and to do so independently, it is also difficult to know what subjects may be important to be discussed.

Questions may be suggested by partners, e.g. parts of the state organisation or parliaments or economic groups. They can also be asked within the advising structures themselves, for example to call attention on a given issue expected to rise in importance over the years. However, it may be difficult to know what issues may become relevant in a close or far future. As a consequence, it is well worth spending some level of effort within academies to reflect about potential upcoming issues. It is always easier to consider current issues of which one knows that they will be with us for a number of years. All aspects of climate evolution and the adaptation of our civilisations to its consequences are part of this set of questions and ought not be neglected.

Efficiency of scientific input to society

Once a highly relevant independent position has been developed by an authoritative body like an academy on a subject of high importance, it is time to reflect on the means to be deployed to make that advice efficient. This is not necessarily the easiest part of the process.

Some points come repeatedly when considering this issue. One is that decision makers, often politicians, are more sensitive to what they read in the press than to lengthy reports. One should therefore make the press aware of the work of our academies and use them as relays between scientists and society. A further point often in place is that the advice, whatever its form, should appear at the right time. It makes no sense to issue a beautiful report weeks or months after important decisions pertaining to its content have been taken.

Here also the form in which a piece of work is presented is important, communication must be adapted in length and style to the potential readers. The work must be addressed to the right people. Preparing and communicating reports or advices for people who may not have any impact on the subject discussed is not very fruitful.


Providing scientifically sound advice is a major responsibility of the scientific community towards our societies. It is a very difficult task. It must be approached with humility.

Scientists, be they teachers or researchers, have had the opportunity to gain an immense knowledge that rests on the work of their peers over the centuries. They owe to the society that has given them this opportunity the time and effort that is needed to make our world function better.

(The article was originally published at http://cap.unige.ch/courvoisier/?p=142)