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Consensus studies as a vehicle to ensure ethical evidence-based policy guidance

Posted on December 04, 2019

Scientific enquiry and the communication of science are essential to achieving universal goals related to development. The issue of the ethical conduct of science is sharply under focus concerning the contemporary demand for evidence-based policy.

Professor Sheryl Hendriks, Head of Department for the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development, in a keynote address at the World Science Forum in Budapest on 22 November 2019 questioned if academic performance criteria for research that demand evidence of policy influence and change could lead to policy interference in policy directions without structured mechanisms to synthesise research for policy consideration.

The modern scientist faces intense competition in light of the changing nature of collaborative efforts, the quickening pace and increasing complexity of research endeavours and the growing emphasis on commercialisation of research results. Academic performance criteria continually change, becoming more demanding and more complex to measure. Falsification, fabrication and plagiarism are constant concerns facing the integrity of the scientific community. The massification of science outputs is also a challenge, evidenced by the incredible rise of predatory journals.

However, scientists are not the only ones driven by performance targets. Under the constant scrutiny of governing boards, research and development funders – both public and private – are increasingly pressed to demonstrate outputs, outcomes and impact. This is often linked to short-term project funding where research impact, in particular, may not be directly observed or may not be for a relatively long period in the future. But we need to develop, advance our careers and show tangible policy impact.

There is an urgent need for independent research but also the need for consensus concerning policy guidance. Individuals cannot play the policy advisory role alone. None of us is capable of covering the entire scope of knowledge necessary to identify, probe and reach the best-fit scenario for complex policy decisions such as is necessary in food security policy. We have to draw on the existing body of knowledge. But, how do we handle conflicting evidence in the scientific literature and discourse? How do we act if scientific literature and discussion is biased, miscalculated or misguided?

Policy contexts are location-specific, requiring tailoring to local economic, social and cultural situations. Blueprints cannot be rolled out. Policy research also requires multiple disciplines to engage. There are serious ethical considerations to advising on elements of science that you are not qualified to pronounce on. We need to tread cautiously, recognising the boundaries of our knowledge and the necessity to bring in experts in specific fields.

This is where consensus studies have an essential role to play. Consensus studies expect scientists to make sense of the science and find a way of presenting the controversies, contradictions and convergence of evidence to guide policy decisions. Recent policy dialogues among scientists have adopted consensus study approaches. These approaches take multidisciplinary approaches, bringing top-rated scientists from a variety of disciplines around the table to contribute best practice examples, share experiences and lessons learnt against the background of robust critique of existing research. 

Such dialogues include heated debates between scientists of different persuasions, with contradicting findings, different contextual backgrounds and different disciplinary traditions to face the challenge the science community has created for policymakers. They bring to the table literature that may have limited circulation because it is published in languages other than English. This work brings considerable insight from a range of locally relevant contexts and diverse orientations.

Prof Hendriks provided examples from three experiences with working on consensus reports for policy guidance on critical issues: the Committee on World Food Security's High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), the Inter-Academy Partnership (IAP) project on Food and Nutrition Security and Agriculture and the Malabo Montpellier Panel. All three involve the identification of pressing policy issues, the synthesis of literature and rigorous debate to identify the controversies, contradictions and convergence of opinions, best practice options and lessons learnt.

“None have been easy engagements, but have changed my perspective on many issues and heightened my awareness of the complexity of policy research and on providing carefully considered policy advice,” she said.

Through such processes, the existing literature is synthesised and clear policy advice is arrived at through consensus involving at least several disciplinary experts, but sometimes with extensive public input and usually with an external review. In terms of the HLPE, rigorous processes have been developed and documented. Prof Hendriks wondered if the research system is not expecting too much of researchers in demanding evidence of policy influence and change. Should this criterion apply to all research? Is the requirement not creating expectations that lead to unethical practices? Herd mentality in conclusions misleading and misguiding policymakers? Where is the moderation? The seasoned reasoning in such approaches? The moral compass guiding ethical behaviour?

The responsibilities for policy influence are exceptionally high. The risks of public policy experiments and misinformation can have significant consequences for achieving the very goals at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals – to leave no one behind in development. The Fourth Industrial Revolution brings about more and more data, increases our capacity to analyses large data sets and machine learning tells us more about how we act. However, when it comes to policy support, there can be no substitute for the sound and ethical conduct of independent science across multiple domains and the need for reaching consensus on complex societal public policy matters. 

Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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