European flag
Rolf Heuer and Pearl Dykstra on being a chief science advisor

Rolf Heuer and Pearl Dykstra on being a chief science advisor

Science for Policy podcast episode

Play Video

About this episode

Broadcast on

7 September 2020


Show notes

What's it like to be a Chief Scientific Advisor? Why does the European Commission's Scientific Advice Mechanism use both advisors and academies? What have the advisors learned in the first five years of the mechanism's existence and what tips would they give to their successors?

Professors Rolf-Dieter Heuer and Pearl Dykstra discuss these questions with Toby Wardman of SAPEA. We also talk about making sense of disagreements in science, whether the world is really losing faith in experts, and whether time travellers recently saved the world from being destroyed by a miniature black hole.


The transcript below was generated automatically and may contain inaccuracies.

Toby: Hello, welcome to the podcast. This is Toby. Just before we get into today's conversation, I just wanted to add a little word of explanation because there's a bit of technical terminology which both of my guests today use a few times. Or not really technical but just something you may not know if you're not familiar with the ins and outs of the European Union science advice scene. So at various points, both of my guests refer to opinions. They say things like when we're thinking about our opinion or when we're putting together our opinion. But they're not talking about their opinions in the ordinary sense, like their points of view. They're referring to the official documents which the European Commission's chief science advisors write for the College of Commissioners, which are called scientific opinions, so capital S, capital O. Anyway, maybe that's obvious from the context of what follows, but I just wanted to mention it in advance. I think that's it, I hope. I trust the rest of our conversation is self explanatory. So without further ado, here we go. Enjoy the interview.

Toby: Hello, welcome to the Science for Policy podcast. My name is Toby and today I have two interesting guests for the price of one. I'm joined by both the chair and the deputy chair of the European Commission's group of chief scientific advisors, namely Professors Rolf Dieter Heuer and Pearl Dijkstra. So Rolf is a particle physicist who's been closely involved in creating and operating large particle detector systems. In that capacity, he served as director general of CERN, where he oversaw the opening and operation of the famous Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest particle accelerator. He's now the chair of the chief scientific advisors and in that post he's overseen the first five years development of the scientific advice mechanism. And Pearl is professor of empirical sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she's led a number of major international research projects. She specialises in the study of both life course aging and implications of the aging society, including family change, intergenerational solidarity and loneliness. Like Rolf, she's a founding member of the group of chief scientific advisors and she's been its deputy chair since 2016. Rolf and Pearl, a very warm welcome to both of you.

Rolf Heuer: Thank you. Here we are. Hi Toby.

Pearl Dykstra: Great to be part of your podcast.

Toby: Well, I'm equally happy to have you. Perhaps you could give listeners who might be unfamiliar a quick summary of what your role is as chief scientific advisors.

Pearl: There are seven of us from different countries in Europe. At the moment, there are more women than men. There's a nice mix of ages and there's also a nice mix of disciplines involved. But of course, seven people cannot cover all disciplines. We work with, and here comes an acronym, SAPEA, it's Science Advice for Policy by European Academies, which is a consortium of 100 academies all over Europe. We work with them because they provide us with the evidence reviews. So if we have a particular topic with a particular question that could be answered through science, SAPEA goes to work, finds experts, does structured literature searches, and we call that the evidence review. And the point there is that they say what is known about a topic, what's uncertain and what is not known. That's one point. Another is that we're supported by what we call the unit in Brussels, about 20 well-educated people who work for the commission and they do what we call the policy-scaping so that they know that whatever advice we will be preparing has relevance for the European Commission.

Rolf: Well, we are giving scientific advice to policy -- not, and that's very important. We are not giving advice on scientific policy, on science policy. We keep a strict separation here and the key word I would say is credibility. We are giving science, scientific advice to policy, not advice to science policy, but of course we are pointing out gaps in knowledge. I think that's also very important to do that as a scientific advisor, pointing out gaps in knowledge. We work for the college, that means for all commissioners of the European Commission. However, we are appointed on a personal basis.

Toby: Yeah, Rolf, you've actually brought up something already that I wanted to ask about. So you're officially advisors to the European Commission, but that's a bit ambiguous because it can sometimes mean the whole civil service, like the whole body of officials. But in your case, you advise just the College of Commissions, the 27 politicians at the top. And one thing that's interesting about that is that there is a whole different infrastructure for inputting science advice into different levels of the organisation. It's mostly the Joint Research Centre and there are other groups and officials and so on. But your role and the role of the Scientific Advice Mechanism is just to advise the top table. Why does that division of labour exist?

Rolf: Yes, I think one should point out also that we are not working in isolation, we are working of course together with the Joint Research Centre and with other agencies and institutions of the European Commission, because we don't want to duplicate work. So we work together, we try to get from everywhere the best scientific evidence for the specific topic we are working on.

Pearl: I could jump in here.

Rolf: Yes, please jump in.

Pearl: I think what's crucial, it's wonderful to work with the oint research centre because they know what's on the agenda of the Commission so well. But outsiders will also look at the Joint Research Centre and say that they are too much part of the Commission, so to what extent are they independent? And we seven were not paid by the European Commission, we're totally independent. So the idea here is too that we have no conflicts of interest, at least as regards the European Commission. All of us have conflicts of interest, given that we all have a history. But I think the crucial point here is the independence and another is, and I think that's our scientific status, is that all of us have connections with either the young academies or the national academies. So we provide very quick access to the best of science.

Rolf: The way the scientific advice mechanism within which we are working is set up is that it's a sort of two layer system. So you have SAPEA, which was already mentioned by Pearl, which provides scientific evidence in the evidence review report. And we are, so to speak, distilling, synthesizing, judging on the evidence review. And we are making the recommendations. So there is a separation between the scientific bodies and us as the recommendation makers, so to speak. And this makes us even less prone to conflicts of interest. I like this way of the two layers very, very much I must say.

Pearl: What's interesting is we will be advising on topics where none of us are an expert. Nevertheless, we are able to assess the quality of the evidence. And what we're very cautious in doing too is to make sure that the evidence covers the full spectrum, that we haven't left out a particular area or we're not leaning too much towards a particular methodological approach.

Rolf: This is, if I can jump in here, exactly also the advantage of the diversity of the group. And the diversity is big enough with seven in the group. We saw this in all of the papers we have published that this diversity was enriching and normalizing, so to speak, exactly in the way Pearl was mentioning.

Toby: Hmm. Okay. So you would argue against the need to have for a science advisor to only give advice on the area in which they personally have expertise. I mean, I definitely hear what you're saying, Pearl, about your role being to bring the evidence together and assess it and then communicate it, not to be the source of the evidence in the first place. But somebody who has no particular expertise in a topic, I don't know, like say microplastics pollution, which I know is an area you've advised on, someone who doesn't know that area, to what extent can they even assess the evidence well enough to give the expert advice?

Pearl: Oh, this is a wonderful question that you've asked.

Rolf: Yeah.

Pearl: No, none of us are actually advising on any issue where we have a certain expertise. And don't forget the policymakers aren't expert in these areas either. Nevertheless, we can still delve into the evidence in the sense of reading some key papers or talking to the experts who work through SAPEA. And given we all have experience reviewing papers, serving as a jury, serving on academic boards, so we're trained in assessing the quality of science and that's what we're doing. And I think the fact that we're not specialists is even has a bonus because we can never be accused of trying to pursue our own private pet topics because we have no strings attached in any of the topics. But we do have a scientific reputation. We can actually judge the quality of the evidence base and then explain to the policymakers why, for example, there might be differences in opinion or differences in ideas among the scientists. And that's our role. And a nice way of putting is we have to make sense of the science.

Rolf: If I can jump in here, I think I may be the best example here because I'm a particle physicist by training. And I have to admit that essentially for all the topics dealt with in Brussels and dealt with by us, I needed to familiarize myself because I'm by no means an expert. But I can only just underline what Pearl has said. We have learned to grasp the essentials and to rank or classify results and to rank or classify information and make a recommendation out of them and form clear scientific evidence and recommendation out of that. And the multidisciplinary composition of the group helps enormously here because you are not only learning by reading or talking to experts, you are also learning and synthesizing through the discussions within the group in our meetings. I think that's very, very important. And again, I also want to underline not to be an expert helps even to look freshly and with a different angle on the topic. But you need to invest some time.

Toby: I can imagine. So science advice systems look different in different countries, as we know, so in different jurisdictions. But the European Commission's model strikes me as one of the most different. A country might have a chief science advisor, you have that, in fact, you have seven of them. Another country might appoint officials or committees to give the advice. Another one might draw on the research community more directly in some way by taking expertise from universities or academies, which you also do. So how has the EU ended up with this quite intricate kind of hybrid model?

Rolf: Actually, we are one group, we act as one group. So we speak with one voice, but we are seven people. I think seven is a fantastic number. One person as a science advisor can always be attacked on whatever reasons from whomever. That's relatively easy to attack, justified or unjustified a single person, it's more difficult to attack seven people who act coherently, then it's much more difficult to come with conflicts of interest or with what whatever arguments against that group. In addition, seven is a small enough number so that everybody in the scientific world knows that his or her beloved field might not be represented because seven can only represent a tiny amount of the field. And therefore, there can also be essentially no complaints from the scientific world that the beloved subject I'm working on is not represented. And that is fantastic. So this gives a great acceptance within the scientific community to this small group. In addition, with Scientific Advice to Policy by European Academies, by SAPEA, the academic world is fully involved in developing the recommendations in developing the opinions through these evidence review reports. So again, we have a clear connection, a fantastic connection with the scientific world, which is, as we can see, very happy to work for this evidence review report to work for the science for us for the scientific opinions. And by essentially all stakeholders that we have realized with all of our opinions, that there was very little that people are not happy necessarily with our recommendations, but they didn't find enough arguments against the way we were developing and publishing our recommendations.

Toby: Yeah, I suppose it means that if someone wants to disagree with the conclusions you come to in your opinion, they have to engage with the issue. It's much harder for them to take the easy way out and say, oh, it's because the advisor was biased or whatever.

Rolf: Exactly.

Toby: Pearl, did you want to come in here?

Pearl: Yes, I do, because I think this is a crucial element. And I'm going to introduce this tricky word and it's trust. But there's also, to gain trust, there has to be trustworthiness. And I think the way we work is we try to be as transparent as possible. So people see what we have read or what Zapea has read and what we have read in addition, so they can see how we use the literature. We have also developed a new kind of concept of what evidence is. And then I'm taking the example of cybersecurity here, where the researchers so knew that not all of it has been published. But then we will have had a group of 40 experts who then all say, we agree that that is the status of the literature. And we have taken that consensus among the expert as another body of evidence. And we have reported that. We have been criticized for also relying on evidence from industry. But our response is some of the best researchers in the world work for industry. And we listen to what they have to say. It's written up, but that doesn't mean we necessarily adopt their views. Again, it's recorded, it's written up, and then we digest all the available evidence and together the seven of us arrive at the recommendations.

Rolf: Can I also jump in here again on the word of transparency? I think that's a key word because transparency creates credibility also and therefore the trustworthiness. And for the transparency, it's also very important that we take only into account knowledge or evidence which is publicly available. No private communications or things which cannot be published yet. This is not taken into account. Everything has to be openly accessible, publicly accessible. Be it in workshops, and Pearl mentioned the cybersecurity, that was a very interesting topic where we had to learn a lot through the workshops with the experts where they are very interesting, very involved discussions. But finally at the end, the experts agreed essentially on several points which we could then use in our recommendations.

Toby: How do you decide what topics to give advice on? Do you see what's coming up and then pick something interesting or do you always respond to questions from commissioners?

Rolf: Well, I would say we have two and a half ways to do it.

Toby: Okay!

Rolf: One way is top down. That means one or several commissioners are interested because they have to publish a legislation in a year's time or so. Then they come to us and we work on that. But we have also topics which are bottom up. That means which come from us, from ourselves because we think it is relevant. It's likely to be of high relevance in the near future. And it falls in the remit of the European Commission. And the half one which I mentioned is that sometimes we have very interesting topics which lead then automatically to new topics following this one. I take as an example our work on the food from the oceans. Then there was clearly this question of plastics and microplastics. And as a follow up of the food from the oceans, we had the microplastics pollution opinion. And as a follow up of the microplastics pollution opinion, we are now working and soon finalizing the work on biodegradable plastics. So you see that's the halfway that's in between bottom up and top down.

Toby: Okay so then to get into the nitty-gritty for a while, you get a request from a commissioner let's say, or you identify a topic yourself that you'd like to follow. What happens then? How do you figure out exactly the scope of the topic and essentially what questions you're going to answer?

Pearl: Well I think what we do then is that we work in a consultative way. It's deciding on the question to be addressed by the scientists. And here, okay we know the topic, we develop a first version of this question and then the people in the unit touch base with as many commission services as possible. If we take a topic like microplastics, it's of interest to DG SANTE, but also to DG AGRI, to DG MARE, to see whether they have additional questions or an additional slant that they would like to have addressed. And that is put into something called a scoping paper. Then we get to work. But during the process of working, it has arisen that new insights are gained or that the commission has a new development and they would like to change the question. So it's not a question that's set in stone from the start, it's a question that's arrived at in deliberation, a question that can be changed over time, but it's always a question that can best be answered by science. And this is one way of working. We know that there are many other ways of working where it's, for example, all of the scoping and all of the developing of the question is done by the scientists and only then presented to the policymakers. In our view, and there's a lot of research to show it, that this consultative way of working is most effective and it is most likely to actually result in being put into new legislation or plans of the European Commission.

Rolf: Maybe let me add here, because some people might now say, you are working together with the policymakers in order to develop the question. This is by no means speaking against the independence and the open outcome. This is just in a pragmatic way to make the question in such a way that it's still timely, that the answer is still timely. And secondly, that there can be an answer because you have to understand the question, everybody, the politicians and the scientists have to understand the question the same way, which is not necessarily the case at the very beginning. And it's also important to be able to deliver, as Pearl said, a scientific answer to the question. So there is no predetermined outcome, even if you work together in a consultative way, that's the most effective way to do it.

Toby: I'm embarrassed to say that the penny is only just dropped really listening to both of you explain things then, even though I've worked in this field for a few years now, how valuable it must be to have the SAM unit, the secretariat who kind of work for you, but are embedded in political infrastructure so that they can do that scoping and landscaping work from the inside.

Rolf: Indispensable.

Pearl: Yeah, okay, but it is, but I don't think it's unique to us.

Toby: Okay.

Pearl: I'm thinking of even the system, and it's usually the Anglo-Saxon system with the single chief science advisor. Don't forget that this person can rely on science advisors in various ministries who there touch base with what is current, what's on the agenda of the policy makers. I'm also looking at the system where there are all kinds of planning offices, advisory bodies. They are also tend to be well connected with policy makers. It's where we come from, the academies, where those connections with policy makers are not self-evident. And that's something that we have to work on at the universities too for those who, because a lot of scientists want to do something that's relevant for the public or for policy, but they're not sure how to go about doing it. It's an art that is taught at some universities, again, usually in the UK, but I think it's an art that can be taught more often. So it's not, we're very grateful to have the unit. They're wonderful, but it's not unique to Brussels.

Rolf: Yeah, I agree with Pearl, but what is maybe a little bit unique is that they are not only having all this access within the Commission, but that they are also doing work by themselves guided so to speak by us.

Pearl: Yeah.

Rolf: Yeah. I think that's also very important. And that's very important that they are scientifically educated people, people from science, from research in the unit, in the secretariat. And that's the only way we could work in such a constellation.

Pearl: They are indispensable.

Toby: Yeah. I can understand that.

Rolf: As I said at the beginning, yes.

Toby: Okay. So how about the other piece of the puzzle? What's it like working with what's essentially more than a hundred academies from across Europe? I should add here, you don't have to, please be as honest as you like for the sake of our listeners, you won't offend me.

Pearl: Oh, well, it's been, it wasn't self-evident from the start. Okay. One thing that struck me from the start though, is the willingness of the scientists, of researchers. Sometimes I try and avoid the word scientists. I try to use words like academics or researchers or scholars. The willingness to work with us, that's one. But another was also a willingness to provide policy recommendations. And so we would have to say, nope, we want to know what the state of the art is. We want the evidence. What do you know? What don't you know, what's uncertain? And we will develop the recommendations. So that's where I wouldn't say we've had to educate the scientists, but we had to tell them how the system works. And what I also want to emphasize, and that's what's wonderful about SAPEA, is that the model that we have developed in Brussels, collaboration with SAPEA also provides us with a basis for science diplomacy or exporting our model to other countries. And we have a very concrete example of doing that in Poland. It's something European about it in the sense that the way we work, which I think is high quality and it really is a good basis for policy, is a model that might be adopted elsewhere.

Toby: Yeah, actually, that kind of cross-pollination is something I know a couple of future podcast guests would like to talk more about.

Rolf: I can, I had discussions in Finland. I think Finland is also looking into such a model and there might be more countries following. I would like just to add to what Pearl said, of course, it's impossible to work with scientific academies. This is why we have SAPEA, which filters the relevant academies. But I also have to say that it was a learning curve from the beginning because we had to make clear that we make the recommendations and SAPEA gives us the basis for that, the food, so to speak, to make these recommendations that was already pointed out by Pearl. It took some time, but it works out pretty well now. It took at the beginning, especially some discussions between the respective chairs. That means that the chair of SAPEA and the chair of the group of chief scientific advisors. But we could always find a solution and at the end, since then, it's clear which role, which part of the group has. So there's maybe some other slight problem, which is always there when you work with many people because they all work voluntarily. So sometimes the experts think, I can help that, I can do that. They are the experts in the field. But finally they find out they cannot fulfill their promises for different reasons, mostly because of time constraints. But again, SAPEA is able to correct that. But that's a normal way once you do it on a voluntary basis.

Toby: Yeah. Yes. I have to say, okay, so in case listeners haven't twigged yet, I work for SAPEA, so I'm not quite a neutral interlocutor in this conversation. But I have to say, I like my job in many different ways, but one of the parts I most enjoy is on the occasions that I'm able to work directly with our experts or even just sit in the back of the room when they're meeting to discuss how to present the evidence or how to deal with a particular issue. It's partly good because they're all there talking with each other about the stuff they know and love, and so they're obviously energised. But also because I get the sense they really feel the honour and the responsibility of having been asked to give advice as part of the EU's science advice system in a way that will really have a direct impact on future policy across Europe. I always come away from those meetings feeling excited and energised. And it's interesting how that fits with what you've just described, because I can understand how that excitement, which I think is honestly necessary for the system to work, given that these are all eminent and very busy people who work voluntarily for us. I can understand how it can sometimes bubble over into an enthusiasm to say, yeah, here's the evidence and here's what we think policymakers have got to do about it.

Pearl: But I've also experienced a different kind of excitement, and that is a lot of researchers are very good in their niche, whereas what they have to do in the working groups is go beyond their areas or consider not just their own little bit of expertise. I'm thinking of food from the oceans where, oh, come on, it's the people who farm fish, it's the representatives of the penguins, it's the Southeast Asia fisheries. So you have a multitude of perspectives in the room and then they have to agree on what do we know and sort of step outside their trusted bubble and then dare think beyond their little area of expertise. And I know that they have found that incredibly exciting.

Rolf: Pearl, that's exactly what we are doing. We are stepping out of our bubble and we are excited to do that. So you describe what we are doing. I can tell you again, unfortunately, I forgot which topic it was, but it was a scoping workshop to define really the questions with quite a few experts in the field. I think it was on the biodegradable plastics, if I'm not mistaken. And essentially, all of the people, of the researchers who were in this scoping workshop wanted afterwards to be part of the working group of SAPEA, which of course we don't do, or SAPEA doesn't do, because you would like to have some exchange in between the people, also to have maybe other views and fresh views. But I was so much positively surprised about this positive drive towards doing something, this motivation. It's nice.

Toby: We haven't talked much, I mean, I haven't asked you much about the content of the actual scientific advice that you've given over the past few years. There's quite a lot of it, as we've suggested on a very broad range of topics, but I think it would be remiss of me not to bring up one topic in particular, because it's rather different from the rest and maybe it's more directly relevant to this conversation. So it's the one called scientific advice to European policy in a complex world, or it seems to become more generally known by the original working title, Making Sense of Science. This was a more introspective, I think, piece of work, where you basically reported on how science advice works and how it should work. So what brought this about, firstly? How did you come to give what's basically advice about advice?

Pearl: It was a topic that we chose ourselves.

Rolf: Yes.

Pearl: And I think it was also the realization, and this isn't going to be modest, but the realization that we were making history, that we, backed by the academies, with a selected group of scientists from all disciplines, were advising a very influential body. And it was, as I said earlier, when we started, we drew very much upon the Anglo-Saxon model, how do you do it? We all come from the academies where there's not that very strong rapport with policy makers, and very often in the academies we're there to say, we want more money for research, and we're not doing that in our European capacities. But it was also, how do we do it? What went well? What did not go well? And by then we had also seen that there, as you alluded to earlier, there are different models across Europe or across the world. And we, by then also, we were more aware of the large literature on policy advising. And another interesting observation is that a lot of people who write about policy advising don't do it. Whereas we were actually advising, experiencing it, and feeling the need, hey, let's now touch base with the literature. Where do we find gaps in the literature? Where do we see that, well, perhaps there is an inconsistency?

Rolf: Yes, but I think I would like to add two more things to that. What was very, very useful in developing this opinion was to work with, to have a workshop with practitioners who do the practical work in the Anglo-Saxon and other models.

Toby: Sorry, by practitioners, do you mean science advisors?

Rolf: Like advisors, yes. And that was in addition to the literature review. So this helped me personally, for example, that was the most interesting part of the work on that opinion. Finally, we had this combination of theoretical and practical work.

Toby: Okay, so we haven't got time to work through the whole opinion, but what would you want to highlight as the key insights?

Rolf: I think the most difficult one, I mean, first of all, multidisciplinary in science advice is essential. You cannot give good scientific advice without looking at all disciplines. And science means all science, from the humanities, social science to natural science. So it's Wissenschaft in the German.

Toby: Yeah, that word we strangely lack in English.

Rolf: The most difficult part is to explain uncertainty. But you have to explain uncertainty. That's what Pearl already mentioned, what's known, what's not known, but what's also not knowable. And this is very difficult to digest very often for the general public. But this is something you have to do. And you have to try to do it in a language which is adapted to your audience.

Toby: Pearl, do you want to add anything? Have you got a favorite recommendation?

Pearl: Well, I think my favorite focuses on the transparency, but particularly, and this is tough, also explicating how you go from the evidence to the recommendation. There's a leap there. There's logical steps, there are assumptions, and to explicate them so that you know where the recommendations come from. I think that's one of my favorite recommendations.

Toby: Okay, thanks. I will put a link to the opinion in the show notes for the episode so that listeners can go and read more. It's well worth the read. It's a very comprehensive piece of work.

Rolf: Yeah, it has the advantage, it's not too long.

Toby: Yes, I should also mention that. So overall, the science advice mechanism is fairly new. It's only been around not even five years yet. And as I understand it, the mandate of an advisor is limited to five years. So you're both coming towards the ends of your tenures. So how do you feel about it? How do you feel things have gone?

Rolf: I don't know. It's very difficult to judge if you can be happy, what you have done, satisfied with what you have done. But I think we have established a new way of science advice to policy within the European Commission, which, and this is, I think, not always the case which has survived the rotation in the Commission. That means the new commission has taken the scientific advice on board. So they are very happy to work with us. We just had a few days ago meeting again with the Commissioner. And so they are all very much looking on what we are producing and what we are doing. We had the question, could we do more? We all came to the, the group of us seven came to the conclusion now it's difficult to do that because of time constraints. And what you could do more is to gain more visibility. But that takes time, especially in the European Commission, but maybe also try to get more visibility outside. So more visibility was in the College to get more visibility in the Parliament and to get more visibility towards the citizens. So I think that would be something one has to work more on in the near future or in the medium term future.

Pearl: We just published, actually it's half a year ago, our four years report where we look back on what we've done. And there we have traced what has happened to our so-called opinions. So those are the recommendations and where they have been picked up in new legislation or have been picked up in policy debates or even by the court of Europe. So in that sense, we also have a very, again, an evidence base of the fact that the commissioners and commission services are listening to what we have to say.

Toby: I know you both have plenty of experience working with policymakers at other levels, national and sub-national and so on. Is there anything that feels distinctively different, distinctively European maybe about your work with commissioners?

Rolf: Sometimes let's say to get through the different cabinets to the, it's sometimes a little bit, there are boundary conditions and so it might take a little bit longer to get through. You need the entry point, but I think you also need entry points at the national level. So I think after we have been known to commissioners, it was less of a problem. I take the example of at that time, Mr Vela, the commissioner in DG MARE. He was very happy with our work on the food from the oceans and then immediately jumped with us on the microplastics. So that shows that once you have, so to speak, entered the room, you can stay in the room.

Pearl: I think another difference is here, the seven of us have on our forehead, you are a chief scientific advisor. Whereas when we operate nationally, none of us occupy the position of chief scientific advisor. No, we are scientists in our own right.

Toby: Oh, that's interesting.

Pearl: And so there we're not part of a structure. We there operate from our universities or because we're called in as experts, but we're not, we do not have the brand chief scientific advisor. Yes, we're an academy member. And that makes it a big difference. It's the branding and the doors that are opened because we have been labeled chief science advisors, which is something that we do not have at the national level.

Rolf: I can tell you it was much easier to get access to ministers or even presidents of countries when I was director general of CERN.

Toby: Well, that's a different kind of badge.

Rolf: That's a different kind of badge. So compared with this, it's much more difficult as a group of chief scientific advisors. But if you need access, you get access.

Toby: Yeah. Okay. Fair enough. So what skills does someone need who wants to wear that badge? What skills does a chief science advisor need to bring to the job? I love this question because sometimes, no, no, I'm quite often, I'm asked to speak for a young audience and they go, how do you become a chief science advisor? Well, there's not a clear career path. This is a collective capacity is we like each other and we're in there not for our own egos. And listen, we all have big egos, but we feel we want to show what's good about science and how we can put science to use to help policy. Another is we can communicate. And another is that we're able to assess the quality of science, even if it's not in our own areas. I would say those are the characteristics.

Rolf: One more, you have to take everybody serious. Even if you don't think the person is right or let's be blunt and talk rubbish, you have to be able to listen and then to make up your mind. I learned this during the black hole crisis at the start of the LHC.

Toby: Wait, okay. Hang on. The black hole crisis. Go on. You got my attention.

Rolf: Oh, people, there were sort of scientists who were telling that when the LHC is turned on, it produces small black holes, which will swallow the earth.

Toby: Oh yeah. I heard about this. Right. I remember. So, and there were, someone came up with the theory that the reason it didn't work at the start was because someone was traveling back in time to stop it being turned on or because the universe was preventing it from being turned on somehow. I think.

Rolf: Yeah, yeah. I think things like this. And there I learned that one has to take all of the serious and to counter it with good arguments.

Toby: Yeah.

Rolf: Which was rather easy, but in an understandable language.

Toby: Okay. The last question I wanted to ask you, or really the last broad area I want to ask you about, it's fashionable now to talk about how the world attitude to science and expertise is changing. And I think at the moment there are two parallel, possibly conflicting narratives going on. One is that we all pay a lot less attention to science than we used to. We have no more regard for experts. We don't care about facts as the whole era of fake news, a whole lot of big generalizations about that. And then parallel to that, there's this second narrative, which is, which owes a lot to the pandemic this year that suddenly we've realized how dependent we are on expertise and scientists have suddenly become household names and so on. And these two narratives have both really, I think, emerged during your time serving as chief scientific advisors. So firstly, what do you think? And then secondly, how has this affected how you've done your jobs?

Toby: What a question, that is indeed broad and sweeping. I know that there's a lot of talk about less trust in science or research, but I think we have, we cannot disregard social media where comments, opinions can be spread very, very, very easily. But we also know that a consistent, I would almost say fact, and this is where the social sciences come in, is this consistent high trust in academic research. And that has always been there. So yes, it's two movements, but the importance of universities, of academic institutes as producers of knowledge, and that we need that kind of knowledge for the quality of our societies, that's a persistent characteristic. So I wouldn't, yes, these two tendencies have been there, but I think much more is made of them than empirics allow.

Rolf: I agree with Pearl because the problem is that sometimes volume replaces arguments. Small, very loud group is equally represented in the media as a huge group, which is rather quiet. And I think people have to learn a critical assessment of information, scrutinizing or challenging information needs to be learned early enough. And the young kids already have to learn that not everything on the web is correct. They have to think critically. And this is something which I think is missing more and more because people are so much swamped by information that they listen more to the volume than to the real argument.

Toby: Right. And maybe that's connected to what Pearl was saying about social media, because you no longer have to pass through the editorial lens or have any kind of quality control, submit to any kind of quality control before you can get access to a loud microphone.

Rolf: This is why you have to learn it yourself to do it.

Toby: Sure. Okay. Really the last question this time, if you could give one piece of advice to your successors as chief scientific advisors, what would it be?

Rolf: Well, I think don't stay away from controversial topics. Take them on. The controversial topics are the most interesting one and maybe also the ones which get most attention then and the most helpful ones.

Toby: Pearl?

Pearl: It's not really advice, but I'd say enjoy it. I think what's essential is this multidisciplinarity of perspectives and to, yes, I'm reiterating something that Rolf said. It's also to listen to one another and to truly try and grasp a perspective that might be foreign to you, because I think that is very enriching and again, an even better basis for policymaking.

Toby: Well, I can't think of a better note to end on. It's been a privilege to talk to people who so clearly enjoy the job they do and get on so well with each other, as well as having the skill set that you both identified a few minutes ago, the crucial skill set of being able both to communicate and to listen. So thank you very much indeed. And I guess best of luck for the future, whatever you decide to do once your mandate finishes.

Rolf: Thank you. And I can tell you it is from a natural scientist to get the word of a very positive word to a social scientist. Here it is. It was a, it is, well, it still is a pleasure to work with Pearl.

Pearl: Thank you very much. And the pleasure is mutual.

Uncle SAM

Staff login