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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Science Advice: How to Navigate a Field Struggling with Diversity?

By jenny.mcarthur, on 13 June 2019

Dr Leonie Tanczer and Dr Jenny McArthur, lecturers for UCL STEaPP’s elective module on Science Advice for Policy, reflect on the contradictions of drawing from a Eurocentric discipline when teaching at London’s global university.

Science advice, the process by which governments take account of science, technology, and engineering expertise in decision making, favours the well-networked and influential few – the great and the good, as they like to say in the United Kingdom. At its core, science advice is about expertise, knowledge, and power. Advisors are often affiliated with prestigious universities, sit at the table with ministers and industry stakeholders, and count leading scientific experts as friends. Given these dynamics, if there is one discipline that should be at the forefront of critical reflection on its own biases and consideration of non-conforming voices, it should be Science Advice.

It’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that many university syllabi, reading lists, and faculties have a diversity problem. Representation of scholars from the Global South is lacking. Academia isn’t inclusive when it comes to social categories such as gender and class. And too many disciplines perpetuate Western norms and expectations for public policy. If you don’t believe us, see here, here and here. Critiques from inside higher education raise questions over the way that universities reproduce colonial power relations, advanced by the movement to decolonise the curriculum.

We cannot help but reflect on our role as lecturers, complicit in reinforcing this problem. Our weekly lectures covered key texts, including the work of Sheila Jasanoff, James Wilsdon, Roger Pielke Jr., and Peter Gluckman. Despite our attempts to diversify the syllabus, the centrality of these texts solidifies the Western canon. Additional literature on the theory and practices of science advice also reflect the dominance of the Westminster and US models. Teaching this content to a very international cohort of students made the field’s Eurocentric bias glaringly obvious.

How to reflect on the rigour and real-world relevance of our teaching, and shine a light on its shortcomings? Instead of drawing from the growing body of literature on this subject, this blog post highlights our student’s voices. Their experiences show how this field falls short when it comes to inclusiveness and plurality.

Lessons from the classroom

Institutional models for science advice, and the reality of who holds positions of authority, draw from an exclusive group. This issue was pertinent as over 60% of the cohort comprised non-white women.

One student recounted:

“A lot of the decisions around who gives advice seems to be around established social networks that favour older, middle-class, white, straight cis men. At least from the outside, it still seems like an old-boys network… As a result, it seems quite difficult as a woman who, whilst privileged in many ways, was not privately educated at an elite school, to get a foot in the door.”

Institutional models that rely on professional networks of trust and social ties potentially reinforce this exclusivity:

“Current science advice models seem to run along [the] lines of existing professional and social networks which are intrinsically elitist and generally exclude traditionally-marginalised groups. As a result, current approaches reinforce these inequalities.”

Former Prime Minister David Cameron chairing the Cobra emergency committee, a key part of the British government’s science advice system. Credit: REUTERS/Neil Hall

Another issue relates to science advice in the global context. Science advice emerged in the United Kingdom and North America, and is fostered as “best-practice” for governments. How should we translate a model that was not intended to acknowledge, let alone address, the challenges faced by many countries?

“A lot of research and models are based on the UK, however the UK does not have to deal with a range of challenges evident in other contexts – such as how to equitably involve indigenous communities in decision making, and a lack of educational and research capacity due to fewer university institutions or limited funds to sustain the science policy process. Even the concept of a science advice model seems somewhat problematic given the difficulties in applying one specific model to multiple places”

Students also raised questions over the risk of reinforcing the Western norms and power structures.

“The [science advice] field would be better suited looking at principles of science advice (such as communicating uncertainty, transparency, independence vs relevance) rather than trying to detail frameworks which can be limiting conceptually and very much reinforce the idea that the way we do it in the west is the ‘right’ way”.

Where to go from here?

After reflecting on our recent experience and talking with students, we consider three steps to progress the field of science advice, both in academic scholarship and in practice.

1. Use new tools to evaluate course syllabi and join networks promoting inclusive education

Tools already exist to assess and revise course syllabi and reading lists – such as the Gender Balance Assessment Tool and approaches to decolonise reading lists. Some courses adopt inclusive citation requirements for written assessments, encouraging students to draw from more diverse sources. Networks also have an important role: UCL’s Liberating the Curriculum challenge Eurocentric, male-dominated curricula to bring fair representation to scholars from marginalised groups.

2. Advance interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary scholarship, incorporating disciplines that confront the power and politics of knowledge and scientific expertise

While literature within the science advice discipline gives limited coverage of global practices, there is a wealth of scholarship on indigenous knowledge systems, postcolonial and subaltern studies, and the politics of expertise. Advancing interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary studies of science advice, incorporating these perspectives, can broaden scholarly understanding and provide richer teaching material to equip students.

3. Identify and challenge the ways that science advice depends on – and perpetuates – elitist power structures

Taking on these problems can’t be achieved just by re-tooling our pedagogical approaches and reading lists to represent more diverse voices. It’s also necessary to identify and challenge the power structures that shaped the field in this way. What would it look like to counter science advice’s dependence on exclusive, elitist networks? What would it take to prove that it has moved beyond a colonial project promoting western scientific ideals? Taught courses can also equip students to critique and challenge these structures through assessments and reflective activities.

For us, this year’s teaching experience highlighted the urgent need for reflection and change. By sharing students’ perspectives and honest critique, we encourage other scholars to consider the steps outlined above. We must also consider how to prepare students from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge and tools to succeed in a world of entrenched biases and discrimination. Beyond the quality of science advice scholarship, this is an issue of serving and equipping the next generation of science advisors and policymakers. 

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