Influencing science policy at the intergovernmental level
The Royal Society of Chemistry is strongly influencing the formation of a United Nations independent intergovernmental science–policy panel for chemicals, waste and the prevention of pollution. We spoke to Dr Camilla Alexander White, from our policy and evidence team, and our former president Professor Tom Welton, about how we are fostering trust between scientists and policymakers to ensure meaningful, global action.
Tom Welton: We’re a global chemical society that’s based in London, not a UK chemical society, and we as an organisation are pushing for this intergovernmental panel and for it to be set up in a way which really can have lasting impact on the environment and extend the quality of life for people across the world. Our role as the RSC is to get the best possible outcome for the panel. That is entirely independent from the fact that we’re based in London. Of course, there are issues where, irrespective of the party in charge, any government at any time will be doing well at some things and be doing badly at others.
We have to rise above that, and do what we think is right as a global organisation. But sometimes we’re going to have to say "no, this is not good enough", and other times we’re going to be saying, "hang on, there’s a little nudge you can do here or there’s something I can do there". Throughout this process we’re going to have to do both of those. Sometimes we need to be in lobbying mode. Sometimes we need to be a trusted advisor, and we, as an organisation, need to move between those different roles fluidly.
Camilla Alexander White: We always try to stick to science in everything, to be apolitical and impartial, because you’re always going to disagree with something that somebody is doing. So you
have to try and be set apart from it a little bit, and just say, "here’s the evidence of the day". You even have to draw a metaphorical line that says, "I’m not going to make those decisions for you, because all I’m doing is bringing the evidence to the table, and then I can help you say what the range of options are".
We present a range of options based on evidence – as long as we, as the RSC, stick to the science – we always try not to get too close with the decision makers, but have that influencing role. Governments do things that, sometimes, personally and as individuals, we might not like. Our different opinions as scientists reflect society.
Our strapline is about making the world a better place, and it’s a good one, but making the world a better place isn’t being an environmental lobbyist. It’s not about just thinking about chemistry and not about physics or about biology. It’s about making the world holistically better – with jobs, with money, with training, with skills, with everything in the balance. So the government has to try and balance everything in the mix. There are 'other legitimate factors' – an increasingly common term
in these discussions – covering issues from socio-economic to how cultures and societies work. It’s not just the science in every decision, but we bring that factor. One of the main things that we’ll be doing at the RSC is to try and influence the new UN panel to be as inclusive, open and transparent as possible, delivering the best evidence.
All scientific stakeholders should be able to nominate people to serve on this panel and be involved in setting priority issues. Politics could lead discussions down particular narrow paths but if there’s a broader independent stakeholder membership, then we’ll be able to nominate issues and present an unbiased view on what the biggest issues of our generation are.
TW: Our recent Burlington Consensus discussion was remarkable – given that it was essentially a scientific audience, the openness of that audience to evidence from other areas and to experts from other areas was great to see. That group of people have been very open minded on the broad issues – from cultural change to things about which we have no expertise at all – but that we’re recognising need to come in. I really like that – I thought "good on you", you’re not here saying, "it should only be my point of view that matters".
The other thing that came across very strongly is that it’s almost impossible to find things to eliminate from the scope. And so, rather than thinking about it in that kind of way, some kind of other way of structuring how the panel prioritises things, which isn’t fixing a scope and carving it in stone. Actually it’s about having a mechanism for just determining how priorities should evolve, having a much more fluid way in which priorities are determined.
CAW: It’s a bigger version I think of what we’re doing in the UK. You put the options on the table, presenting a wide scope, all the options and what we think the priorities are. But governments will have the ultimate call on some of those things – and there will be different push and pull priorities from different parts of the world. The key is that the science panel can say "the scope is big here, it complements the climate change agenda, it complements the biodiversity agenda".
Chemicals and pollution is one of the burning issues of the day. If the panel can help by saying to the Government "you should be doing something about this", the onus is on them if they choose to act.
TW: I think that’s a really important point. This group is not intended to be a decision making body. What it is intended to be is the provider of evidence, and perhaps the provider of options. But in the end, it is an intergovernmental panel, and the governments will determine the action. I think that anyone that wants to get involved in it has to really understand that. This is a great influencing voice. It is not a decision making voice because it is an intergovernmental panel, and the governments will make the decisions.