Brussels Declaration gives the ethics approach and guiding principles for revolutionising how scientific evidence is transferred into science & society policy making
The timing of the newly published Brussels Declaration is critical. The current lack of public engagement and acceptance of fact-based decision-making is blatant. We have entered what some refer to as a ‘post-factual’ era of democracy—particularly after the Brexit vote and the Trump win in the US election. An era in which large portions of the public identify with populist rhetoric and the authority of celebrities. An era where information is framed by algorithms and political campaigners. The Internet has changed the way people relate to information. They are often disconnected from science and do not value its evidence.
The mechanisms of policy making clearly need revamping to ensure scientific evidence is appropriately considered by those working at the interface between science, society and public policy. Particularly, we need to reshape the practice and ethics surrounding how new policy comes to bear.
Currently, almost all policy decisions are based on evidence provided by experts. Issues often arise due to the lack of satisfactory answers to the questions: Who are the experts? How are they chosen? And what is the veracity of their advice? The truth is that many political decisions are driven by fears and assumptions. That’s a direct consequence of people feeling that science and politics have left them behind. And most elected officials fear rocking the boat.
To remedy this situation, a five-year reflection on policy mechanisms has led to the publication of the Brussels Declaration on Ethics and Principles for Science and Society Policy-Making. The declaration, first published in EuroScientist, has just been presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston on 17th February, 2017. Our central premise is that science advice can never be fit for purpose unless social psychology and humanities studies around information selection, confirmation bias, pluralistic ignorance, extremism, polarisation, decision-making, are fully factored in.
EuroScientist Exclusive: read the text of the Brussels Declaration on ethics & principles for science & society policy-making in full by downloading the PDF below:
Formulated as a set of 20 recommendations, the declaration supports a bottom-up approach to handle the relationship between all-of-science and society during the policy making process. Inverting the traditional top down approach, into a bottom up solution is no mean feat. It stands to have a considerable impact on scientific research practices. It will also impact how scientific evidence informs policy. And how the adoption of such advice is structured and delivered.
The guiding principles of recommendations included in the declaration hinge on responsibility, integrity, independence, and accountability. They are the backbone for developing and communicating science to inform and evaluate policy. They will help answer questions such as: how do we differentiate between the responsibilities of individuals to look after themselves and the responsibilities of states to look after their citizens? Should society be allowed to step in and require individuals to accept norms regardless of their own beliefs?
Politicians often talk about regaining the trust of citizens. When did they ever have it? And, more importantly, why should they? Scrutiny matters. Similarly, when was democracy ever purely ‘factual’ as if science once had a perfect feed-in relationship? A political fact is something people become convinced of but which is usually not actually true. A scientific fact is usually true—even where interpretation is open—but people find it increasingly harder to believe.
The very existence of a debate, however, should not mislead the science policy community to hasten to a conclusion. Nor should it hold them back from championing questionable evidence. For example, this applies to discussions around cannabis, GMOs, MRSA, antibiotics, e-cigarettes, designer babies and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Currently, much of the information—including that of scientific nature—citizens receive on a topic where policy has yet to be decided is not accepted de facto. Often, counter-evidence immediately challenges the original standpoint. It is typically presented by other sources or communities that have an interest in presenting their own view of the world.
We believe we should not give up on defending ‘the right thing to do’ when the scientific evidence is clear. We need to empower more science and indeed, society actors to stand up, shout up and when necessary, tell others to shut up. The trouble is, this is not happening enough.
The genesis of the Brussels Declaration spans the past five years. It stems from a genuine attempt by the scientific community to question the robustness of science-led policy-making worldwide. The declaration is the fruit of a series of five high-level consultations held between 2012 and 2016 focusing on ‘evidence-based policy-making versus policy-biased evidence-making.’ These events gathered more than 300 people from 35 countries. They aimed at establishing a new playbook to better address the practice, ethics and liability issues surrounding the mechanisms of policy making. The back story to this five-year experiment is rich with tales of skepticism and walk-outs to unbridled support and love-ins.
This movement started with a blank canvas. Everything was done not to prejudge outcomes, while creating an environment conducive to creating confidence. Participants of all intellectual shades and beliefs spoke openly about the positive and negative experience they have encountered when bringing scientific evidence to policy makers.
The format was novel. Bringing elites and decision-makers controlling policy and funding together with hands-on, bread-and-butter experts was new. We went to great lengths to shake up the status quo in confronting the usual ‘top down’ career professional scientific class with a balanced representation of ‘bottom up’ stakeholders or individuals. These included doctors, patient groups, heads of R&D, civil society and media.
For instance, one of the Brussels events, held at the South African Mission to the EU, centred on harm reduction in the case of addiction. We brought to the table care-givers or leading scientists within drug, alcohol or tobacco industries. This case-study to encourage both engagement and examination of how decisions are made, in terms of the processes themselves, not the public health imperatives. Defining the right policy matters. We found that you can spend blood, sweat and tears on top of hard cash telling people that smoking and drinking kill but they do not moderate their behaviour. Similarly, as Kofi Annan put it “drugs have harmed many people but bad government policies have harmed many more”.
Policy in the making
Our philosophy remains that everybody’s science is welcome under scrutiny. Bans or cherry-picking just does not work.
Our series of gatherings prove that, sadly, there is something fundamentally wrong in how we make evidence and how we talk about it. The knowledge institutions and authorities—which traditionally have been responsible for delivering facts—have multiplied. New players have joined, working to political and theoretical economic ends rather than tangible results.
Think-tanks, politically appointed commissions and expert groups are manifest. Yet, there are few checks and balances in place nor are there means to contest when policies proposed by academics, thought leaders and liberals are clearly not evidence-based, nor in the interest of those tax paying citizens they are supposed to serve. And people’s well-being suffers as a result.
It is extremely important to restore confidence in science based policies. Not on top-down authority or even certainty but on ‘methodological trust’. That is, we support scientific knowledge produced by testing a hypothesis, valuing results, using transparent methods, declaring vested interests, submitting ideas to criticism and revisions etc. This approach is indeed superior to other types of knowledge.
As authors of the Brussels Declaration, we are quite convinced it is the only way to defend modernity and democracy in the face of populism and authoritarianism. The discussion will continue at the World Science Forum Jordan in November 2017. This document offers a blueprint for both discussion and behaviour in the global scientific enterprise. We renew our commitment towards the responsible and ethical use of scientific knowledge in addressing the grand challenges of humankind. Hopefully, this declaration will contribute to eliminating glaring inconsistencies whereby society and its policies both profess intolerance to certain behaviours while providing and even pushing the social settings to enable and make legitimate their use.
This opinion piece is brought in exclusivity to EuroScientist readers by some of the co-authors of the Brussels Declaration:
Michel Kazatchkine, UN secretary general’s special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; member, Global Commission on Drugs Policy; former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis & Malaria; Paris, France.
Julian Kinderlerer, former president, European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) reporting to presidents Barroso & Junker; emeritus professor of intellectual property law, University of Cape Town, South Africa (SA), & Adviser to the SA Science Ministry.
Aidan Gilligan, CEO SciCom – Making Sense of Science, Brussels, Belgium.
Lidia Brito, director of science policy for Latin America & the Caribbean, UNESCO & former Minister for Science, Government of Mozambique.
Thomas Hartung, professor, and chair for evidence-based toxicology, director, Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing; Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dept. of Environmental Health Sciences, Maryland, USA.
Kathryn O’Hara, professor of science broadcast journalism at Carleton University, Canada; former president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association; former Board Member, World Federation of Science Journalists.
David Budtz Pedersen, associate professor, Humanomics Research Centre, Department of Communication & Psychology, Aalborg University, Denmark.
Roy Robertson, professor of addiction medicine ,Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh, UK.
Featured image credit: Mike Wilson via Unsplash