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Chief Advisors Chart the Future of Science Diplomacy

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | 2015.10.29

The stage now is not one of prying open the door. It is the stage where scientists are being given a seat at the table. In other words, what policymakers are saying is “show us the way.”

Professor Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak


On the eve of the 2015 APEC Economic Leaders’ Week that will bring together the Leaders, Ministers and Senior Officials of APEC member economies to boost trade and inclusive, sustainable growth across the Asia-Pacific, Chief Science Advisors from the region convened in Kuala Lumpur to offer guidance on navigating emerging scientific and technological challenges and opportunities in support of these aims.

Co-chairing the proceedings were Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor for New Zealand, and Professor Zakri Adul Hamid, Science Advisor to Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, who described the rise of science diplomacy and critical need to bridge lines of communication between the scientific and policy communities. They also shared their views on the role science can play to address issues ranging from climate change and disaster risk, to job and wage growth as facilitated by regional cooperation.

APEC: What are your primary focus areas as a Chief Science Advisor?

Sir Peter:
The role is first and foremost to help the government use science to advance its interests; that is, improving the use of evidence and informing policy development across a whole range of areas—from the social sector, to the environment, to economics. It’s also about improving the use of science in diplomacy. New Zealand uses science quite extensively in diplomacy now.

The second role is to promote the public understanding of science. The third role is to give some views on the science innovations system but that’s primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Science. I’m more of a sounding board and then I obviously take on a lot of cross-departmental issues involving science where the overview I give as the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor can be an integrating role.

Prof Zakri:
The role of the Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia is one that promotes dialogue between the scientific community and policymakers. It is really the science-policy nexus as they call it. But in real or practical terms it is actually to advise the Prime Minister, based on scientific evidence, what the options are from the science and technology perspective of contributing to the social economic development of the country.

APEC: Please unpack the concept of ‘science diplomacy’ and how it’s being employed by governments today.

Sir Peter:
Science diplomacy is primarily about science being used to advance domestic interests internationally. But it has a number of other dimensions: its science and trade negotiations, its science and the ungoverned spaces of the world. The Antarctic, the deep ocean, space, the cyber world are all effectively governed, to the extent that they are governed, by science. It’s about science and foreign aid. Increasingly, how do we use science to improve the efficacy of development assistance? It’s all of those things.

It’s about how science can inform international negotiations—climate change, biodiversity, many other international negotiations. It’s about dealing with issues which cross boundaries like the current haze issue in the Southeast Asia region. There’s many dimensions to it. It’s also a little bit the other direction as well about how diplomacy can help science. For example, in the massive infrastructure projects in science like the square kilometer array which involves multiple economies.

Prof Zakri:
Science diplomacy to me is how scientific knowledge can influence cross-border relations; that is, using science to build good relations between governments and between economies.

APEC: How do you see the interface between the scientific and policy communities evolving?

Sir Peter:
The key word is interface. The culture of science is here, the culture of policymaking is there and each has tended to have a fair amount of hubris and think that they know the best way to do things. The role of boundary organizations and boundary people like science advisors is to be the translator between those two cultures.

What has emerged in the last few years is the recognition that this translation is complicated in both directions. You need people who have expertise and have reflected on how to be an effective boundary person or part of a boundary organization. Because science invades every bit of policy formation in every bit of government now, governments really do want good science advice within the limits of what science can advise.

Prof Zakri:
The scientific community needs to be very careful when we advise policymakers or politicians. That advice should not be policy prescriptive; it should be policy relevant. In other words, we are saying that these are the options that one should take in addressing some of the challenges in sustainable development and it is for the policymakers to decide and develop policies, programs or strategies for each economy.

APEC: How is collaboration among Chief Science Advisors creating value for APEC member economies?

Sir Peter:
In two fundamental ways. The first is in the exchange of ideas. We come from 21 different economies with very different cultural and political framings but the issues are common to all of us. By listening and learning and talking to each other, we can improve the use of evidence in informing government interests dramatically. Equally, as the world globalizes and particularly as the APEC region becomes more interconnected, we need greater understanding of how science, innovation and technology will play in the Asia-Pacific arena.

The second is as the Leaders of the Asia-Pacific confront issues like natural disasters, like climate change, like new technologies, cyber security – the list is very long – there’ll be issues to which we as people that interface between science and policy and science and society have ability to make a particular contribution to advancing the dialogue that’s needed.

Prof Zakri:
Whether it is within APEC as a whole or within a particular economy, the role of the science advisor is that of an honest broker. We should be seen to be facilitating the myriad of interests among our various stakeholders. By that I mean navigating the numerous interests of different ministries which see science as their purview.

In Malaysia, the issue of science is not only the purview of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation but also the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and a host of other government agencies. The role of the science advisor is to facilitate the conversation to reduce duplication and to annihilate potential silos between the ministries. You can translate that across the APEC region too.

APEC: What are the most pressing issues that you feel scientists and policymakers in the region should work more closely to address?

Sir Peter:
Paradoxically, I’d put right at the top of the list the problems that science and technology can create. The pace of innovation is such that we’ve got to make sure that there is social license achieved to use new technologies early in the process of developing them to benefit the economy or to benefit society. That’s a very big challenge.

We’ve learnt a lot of lessons from the various ways different economies tackled or faced or confronted the genetic modification story to recognize that when it comes to driverless cars, to the internet of things, to artificial intelligence, to a lot of new medical technologies that are coming on board, if we don’t work with society and see that there is a culture of co-design and co-production between the scientific community and the community as a whole then we’re going to see more of these collisions and the full benefits of science and innovation will not be achieved.

Equally scientists need to accept that there are rightful places for society in limiting technology. That is an enormous challenge for the 21st century and I would put that at the top of the list as well.

Prof Zakri:
Let me just address our concern in Malaysia. One is how we look at science, technology and innovation as an engine for socio-economic development. Science must convince policymakers that it can eventually create jobs for the people and secondly science should be able to increase people’s income levels.

Those are the two issues that politicians are very interested in. When the politician sees the value of science and technology, we can expand that to areas like environmental degradation, climate change, healthcare and food security.

Within the APEC region, those issues are relevant and considered priorities. The issue of disaster risk reduction is another area that the science-policy interface could play a greater role within APEC. And finally in this particular part of the world, there is the haze problem that also needs to be addressed.

APEC: The Prime Minster of Malaysia opened the APEC Chief Science Advisors Meeting in Kuala Lumpur by calling for guidance on combating the haze that continues to engulf large areas of Southeast Asia due to forest burning for plantation growth (click here for more). How are you and your peers responding?

Sir Peter:
The Prime Minster of Malaysia was saying: “This is a transboundary issue; it’s very complicated, with many scientific dimensions. As people that look at it from different ways, can you, not necessarily solve, but help to address the issue.” That’s precisely where we can come into play through our networking.

On the haze, what we’ve done is left it to the science advisors of the region to get together and see what they need and, if necessary, request help from the broader APEC network. That’s really just an extension of our informal discussions so that APEC member economies can look to the expertise of other member economies that may not be so obvious in some of these areas.

A number of people that were in the room during the Chief Science Advisors meeting in Kuala Lumpur have already been in contact with potential experts in various domains in their own economies to see if there’s some knowledge that can help. Beyond that I think it fleshes out the domains that need to be thought about if long-term solutions are to be found.

Prof Zakri:
The challenge thrown by the Malaysian Prime Minister to APEC Chief Science Advisors and Equivalents is a classic test of the value that such a platform as ours can provide to our Leaders. I see it on two levels: one is to respond to Prime Minster Najib as the Chair of ASEAN and as a member of the APEC community to this very urgent problem of the outbreak of haze in the region. I would establish a group in Malaysia which will right away address the request that he put to us.

Within the APEC context, it’s also a way for those of us who are experiencing the haze now to gain knowledge and experiences from elsewhere within the APEC region and also beyond. I already have inputs from colleagues present in our meeting in Kuala Lumpur that provide insight into some of the best practices to overcome this problem. One case in point, I was told Ireland also has peat soil, with the bogs, and there are ways and means that have been practiced there to overcome such a problem.

APEC: What are the biggest potential sticking points for effectively delivering science, technology and innovation advice?

Sir Peter:
It depends on the context under which it’s given. If you give advice which is not asked for or is not in the framing of where the policy space is, it probably won’t be listened to very well. But if you have that trust of the policy and the political community, they come to you early in the framing of policy development and then you can have a very valuable role.

It’s important to remember that policy is more than just knowledge. There are many other aspects to policy development than the evidence base and so I don’t like to talk about evidence-based policy; rather I talk about evidence-informed policy recognizing that the challenge for the policymaker and the many other dimensions that have to come into play and the difficult tradeoffs they have to choose between.

Prof Zakri:
One point to consider is the knowledge gap in the sense of the need to improve the understanding and acquisition of policymakers on what science can contribute to alleviate some of the problems we are facing today. The role of the science advisor is to narrow the gap so that the policymakers could be more sympathetic and understanding of what science can now provide.

We also need to have the holistic, integrated viewpoint. With that, I mean it’s not unidirectional advice from the scientist or the science advisor but for the advisor to listen to the concerns of the policymakers and the users of our recommendations. Our views also have to be moderated from the concerns expressed by the policymakers. It’s really a two-way street.

APEC: What does the future hold for the link between science and policy in the APEC region?

Sir Peter:
I don’t think there’s a Leader in the APEC region who doesn’t believe that science is important to their domestic interests and to global interests and regional interests. As people become more aware of that importance, experts that have one foot in policy and one foot in science will have more of an opening to shape how economies use science. As long as we reflect honestly on what we can contribute and don’t overstate it, I think we can make a real difference.

Prof Zakri:
The stage now is not one of prying open the door. It is the stage where scientists are being given a seat at the table. In other words, what policymakers are saying is “show us the way.” This is a great opportunity for the scientific community to help improve policy decisions and to take our region’s economies in the right direction today and in the medium and long-term.

There is also a need to articulate the message to the public. The way forward lies in building a knowledge-based society. At the heart of it, when you talk about science, it’s trying to strengthen and build capacity of the young generation on STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Those are the key areas for us to invest in in the future.