X Close

UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Doing science advice well can enhance the soft power of a nation or city

By arthurpetersen, on 19 March 2021

The topic of ‘science advice’ – broadly defined here as practices involving individuals, organisations and structures that mobilise natural and social scientific and engineering knowledge into public decision-making – has been studied from many different angles in UCL STEaPP. Over the past seven years, UCL STEaPP has led two high-impact workshops and several research projects dedicated to charting the phenomenon, studying the activities, actors and institutions involved.

Entrance to Tottenham Court Road building

Tottenham Court Road, where one of the STEaPP workshops on science advice was held

A whole array of findings have been arrived at and summarised in this period, and I have dedicated an earlier blog nearly four years ago to what we can learn from our and others’ research for the capacities for dealing with complex and uncertain evidence. More recently, I addressed the interconnections between science, technology and ‘soft power’ – with the latter term referring to the ability to shape the preferences of others not through use of force or payments but by subtler means, which are often hard to pin down – giving the examples of how investments in water and space engineering are contributing to soft power for the Netherlands the United Arab Emirates, respectively.

In this blog, a few of the results that have been obtained are briefly reviewed, mainly with an eye to a new research angle that is of increasing interest to me and others in the department: How can doing science advice well, in a way that benefits societies, contribute to the soft power of a nation or city?

Doing engineering advice well

Being reflexive of the rather expansive definition of ‘science advice’ used here, Adam Cooper et al. have critically carved out a space for what they call ‘engineering advice’ (open access version can be found here). Within the UK ministry responsible for energy policy, they studied the relationship between a new engineering team and the policy colleagues they worked with across a range of programme areas.

They show that engineering advice – focused on making things better – is an important and potent source of evidence in particular areas of policymaking. Their example can be branded as a success and hence contribute to the image of the UK civil service as being one of the most effective in the world, adding to Britain’s soft power. Still, an important caveat applies: the UK’s energy policy outcomes may actually be dominated too much by engineering, at the expense of a wider socio-technical approach.

Doing legislative science advice well

Caroline Kenny et al. have emphasised the importance of studying how nations organise their legislative science advisory structures. Science advice for parliaments is different from science advice for executive branches of government. Notably, the emphasis is more on supporting the broader deliberative processes of legislation, debate and scrutiny, and on enabling adoption and use by diverse users with divergent political agendas.

They compare three European legislative science advice units within Europe – in the UK, France and Switzerland – and find a range of advisory structures and practices. It is noteworthy that all three countries studied generally score high in soft power indices, both in terms of overall scores and in terms of scores for governance, and that there are different ways of doing legislative science advice well that all differently but positively contribute to each of these nations’ soft power.

Doing global science advice well

Matthijs Kouw and I have analysed the diplomacy that occurs in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), focusing on science and politics. The IPCC reviews scientific literature on climate change in an attempt to make scientific knowledge about climate change accessible to a global audience of decision-makers, mainly within the context of the UN. This global science advisory mechanism can only work well if the different parties (nations and scientists) involved in the negotiations of Summaries for Policymakers respect each other’s values.

Nations such as the Netherlands that have contributed considerable resources in making the IPCC successful as well as more transparent and accountable stand to gain soft power from this tangible and visible engagement with producing the global public good of reliable and relevant global science advice on climate change.

Doing urban science advice well

Jenny McArthur and Enora Robin have analysed a case of urban science advice, the construction of liveability indices for cities (open access version can be found here), which they show has not been done well. They argue that liveability indices – which are used by city policymakers to set goals for developing globally competitive and attractive cities that wield soft power – obscure the differentiated quality of life and everyday experience for urban populations.

They demonstrate that when cities are attributed soft power as a result of poorly constructed liveability indices only few of their inhabitants may benefit. An alternative mode of urban science advice involves co-production, with local actors exploring what liveability means to them – where they can make useful reference to the Sustainable Development Goals – and how it could be enhanced and monitored. Doing this well may, in the long run, lead to more soft power for a city.

Conclusion: more research is needed

Globally, researchers have only seen the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ via empirical studies of how science advice is actually done, and of how particular ways of doing science advice can contribute to the soft power of a nation or city. At UCL STEaPP we continue to dedicate research resources to this topic, as well as to larger questions on the relationship between science, technology and soft power.

Being successful as a nation or city has become increasingly dependent on cleverly navigating a large set of policy domains, including science diplomacy, science advice, risk governance, and science, technology and innovation policy – and on influencing other nations and cities through those. The following practically important analytical question has thus arisen: How can policies related to science and technology benefit the inhabitants of a nation or city and positively influence its soft power? We are very much interested in collaborating with old and new partners worldwide to attack this research question in the next few years.

Leave a Reply