Science can collaborate across borders, but global challenges need parliamentary collaboration too

Cross-border science took centre stage in the pandemic, what has not been evident is collaboration in the work of parliaments. This is exactly what is needed.

11 . 04 . 2022

As we mark the second anniversary of lockdowns in many countries across the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we also acknowledge two years of science and politics as mainstays in our lives. In this time, the relationship between scientific research evidence and the actions and decisions of our Government have become front and centre stage.

What has not been evident is a cross-border collaboration in the work of parliaments. Yet in a global crisis, amid cries for a global response, this is exactly what is needed.

When it comes to politics and governance, the Government is just half of the picture. Parliament too has played a key role in plotting the path for the UK through the pandemic; be that through legislating on COVID measures, scrutiny of Government activity, or debate on myriad impacts of the pandemic.

We are encouraged to believe that the Government has been ‘following the science’ in the decisions and actions it has taken. In the UK we even know who has been guiding those decisions; indeed ‘SAGE (the Science Advisory Group for emergencies’ has even been suggested as a new word addition in the Collins dictionary. Beyond the UK government after government underpinned its actions with claimed scientific evidence. In New Zealand this entailed a pluralistic approach to expertise as the Government drew on public health, infectious diseases, genomics, modelling and immunology evidence and data. In Germany the response was more bottom up with individual Länders — federal states — shaping responses. At the Federal level, moving beyond the general reference groups of virologists and epidemiologists, the National Academy of Sciences convened a group consisting of varied experts and expertise including historians of science, theologians, jurists and philosophers to consider the ‘ethical ways’ of loosening restriction policies.

Various studies point out that ‘following the science’ was not straightforward. It was contingent on differing forms of governance, experiences of crisis management, prominence of academia, effective communication strategies, levels of transparency and whether or not existing structures of advice were sufficient, or whether new configurations needed to be developed. What has received little commentary is the relationship between science and parliaments. Do parliaments also ‘follow the science’, and, if so, who guides them?

When it comes to the UK, we can answer the latter question with relative ease, while the former is more challenging. Members of both Houses of the UK Parliament have access to sophisticated research and information services, including the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology: an office with the specific remit of making scientific evidence available and accessible to Members of both Houses.

Members of both Houses also have access to libraries, which publish politically impartial policy analysis and statistical research, free for all to read. Select committees, which perform the principal scrutiny function, are staffed by specialists and analysts alongside clerks. Beyond these parliamentary functions, political parties have their own research services. Members have their own staff to seek information to advise them, and numerous stakeholders proactively provide evidence, such as learned societies and non-governmental organisations.

As for whether the UK Parliament has ‘followed the science’ in its actions around the pandemic, that is a question for another blog, or a whole research project. What we are interested in here is who guides parliaments outside of the UK. A relatively large amount of academic attention has been given to the notion of evidence-based policy over the past two decades, and the International Network of Government Science Advice boasts over 5,000 members around the globe. Yet there is a paucity in academic study of evidence-informed scrutiny, science advice mechanisms for parliaments, or knowledge exchange between research and parliaments.

Several studies have been undertaken, but these have tended to focus on Northern Europe and America which means they have taken a specific view on who provides evidence to parliaments and how it is done. It is well known that amongst members of the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment Network, structures include parliamentary committees, parliamentary offices and independent institutes. But with just 25 members, albeit with associate members from around the world, these represent a very small majority of nations.

This brings us to our current study: we have recently begun the task of trying to map and understand the ways (or mechanisms) in which parliaments across the world are engaging with research and using this in their deliberative and decision-making processes. We have already seen that the landscape is far more complex than the internal parliamentary offices and external independent institutions which have traditionally been the topic of study and the members of practitioner networks. Away from the global north those involved in conveying research evidence to parliaments go beyond members of the research and policy communities. At the same time, we have also found that those from the Global North appear to play a key role in bridging the gap between evidence and parliaments in the Global South.

Why is this important? To bring us back to Covid-19, which is where this blog began and where most conversations end up these days, we are facing a global crisis, a pandemic means we are all affected. As we have heard time and again, a global crisis necessitates a global response. And that includes a response from those who are scrutinising governments’ actions and legislating. Yet while collaboration across borders is the norm for science, it is not so embedded in the work of parliaments. Our emerging findings show that parliaments appear to engage with research and expertise in very different ways and these are not entirely consistent with conceptions of ‘science advice’, which are common parlance across networks operating in this space.

It is our hope that through mapping and understanding the ways parliaments around the world engage with (scientific) research, we will enable those involved to find out about each other, reach out to each other and understand differing approaches to enabling research use in parliaments. In so doing we hope to improve the outcomes for the citizens those parliaments represent.

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