Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

In this contribution, Irene Broer & Nataliia Sokolovska describe what inspired them to create their own taxonomy of advisory formats and dive into the characteristics of advisory organizations and how they can be systematized.

For most liberal democracies, scientific expertise is an important ingredient of political decision-making. Scientific forecasts and assessments of, for example, poverty or social mobility, the impact of exhaust fumes on public health or the risks of viral outbreaks, help governments to weigh arguments and decide on policy measures. But how exactly does scientific knowledge make its way into politics?

Scientific policy advice can take many shapes, ranging from official statements by scientific academies to informal conversations between researchers and policy officers. In this article, we are particularly interested in organized forms of science policy advice. Looking at 20 organizations in Europe, North-America and Oceania, we provide an analytical lense which allows us to categorize and compare scientific advisory bodies. In the end, we present a taxonomy of types of advisory organizations globally that can be used in order to understand the differences among them. In this contribution, we will describe what inspired us to create our own taxonomy of advisory formats and dive into the characteristics of advisory organizations and how they can be systematized.

A gap in literature and practice

This exploration was  motivated by our work in the Crisis Science Project (CRISP): an assignment of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research for which a team of researchers and practitioners developed prototypes for new scientific advisory mechanisms that could be activated in times of crisis, and which would be better prepared than spontaneous advisory formats when policy makers are under high pressure to make decisions. During our group discussions and preliminary research, we discovered that the range of science advisory organizations out there is both broad and varied, with a plethora of methods and practices to learn from. We felt a strong need to understand these better.

Right in the beginning our team tried to find a roadmap that would show us different types of advisory organizations; this we wanted to use for orientation when conceptualizing our own one. As we soon learned, at that time there was no comprehensive systematic analysis of scientific policy advice with an international perspective; usually, available scientific policy advisory bodies are described in-depth as part of “landscapes” in specific countries. One prominent example to grasp the topic internationally is the work of Lentsch and Weingart from 2009 where advisory landscapes of different countries are presented [1]. Others include analyses of scientific advice for international organizations and supranational authorities [2]–[4]. In addition, Krieger and Stijn Verleyen of the European Commission are currently working on a preliminary mapping of EU’s science advice landscape and in their podcast, they explicitly voice that Europe is very far from a unified advisory landscape. Building on this, we  tried to identify patterns in order to categorize the ways that scientific policy advice takes shape internationally.


In order to do so, we started a broad exploration of scientific advisory mechanisms that exist in different European countries and overseas. As a first step, we analyzed the scholarly debate on the topic of scientific policy advice. We observed that in the scholarly debate three types of advisory formats prevail: linear, interactive and co-creative. The first one is marked by one-time linear communication between policymakers and scientists without any intermediaries [5].  Then we distinguish interactive advisory bodies, which build a recurring dialogue that might be backed by administrative support and intermediaries. And finally, we looked for co-creative advisory bodies: these are marked by the formation of a dedicated space where different stakeholders (politicians, public administrators, researchers, civil society organizations) come together and cooperate throughout the process of generating scientific policy advice. In our sample, we tried to include examples of each type and analyzed subsequently how these organizations are set up. Based on these selection criteria we found 20 different cases in 10 countries mostly in Europe, but also the US, New Zealand, Australia and added some inter- or supranational organizations. As a next step, we analyzed all publicly available documents (websites, reports, media articles) and deduced a number of other similarities and differences according to which these advisory formats could be sorted.

Tab. 1. Overview of analyzed advisory organizations of the science-policy interface

Structuring scientific advisory organizations

In the following, we present four categories according to which those scientific advisory bodies can be structured (Tab.2.).

Tab. 2. Categories of advisory organizations on the science-policy interface

We start with looking at how the organizations are structured and which characteristics are key for their functioning (Organizational structure). After that we look at the composition of the organizations in terms of people who are involved, for example, as temporary experts or permanent staff (Composition). The third category relates to the manner in which the interaction between science and policymakers is designed (Interaction). Finally, we differentiate and compare between the various kinds of output generated by the scientific policy advisory organizations (Output.).

Tab. 3. Characteristics of the category “Organizational structure”

The organizational structure of advisory bodies reveals how the production of scientific advice is managed in terms of working routines and coordination. The first aspect of organizational structure that we highlight – dependency – concerns the level of autonomy. While some organizations operate completely independently from other institutions, others are embedded into larger structures, like ministries or governmental agencies, or supersede and connect smaller entities. Dependency is, of course, also connected with the question of funding and its influence on the organizations’ ability to act freely. Some might be very sensitive to political shifts; take, for example, the case of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in which hundreds of international experts cooperate on climate change. It’s financed by the UN member states on a voluntary basis and when in 2017 Donald Trump ended his governements’ funding this led to a gap of almost 2 million euros which is nearly half of the organization’s budget. 

We were furthermore interested in organizations’ timing and permanency. The British Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the Dutch Outbreak Management Team (OMT) are both examples  of organizations that spring into action ad-hoc in the event of natural disasters, epidemics, technical incidents, and other catastrophes that threaten the well-being of the population. In contrast, organizations like New Zealand’s Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (PMCSA) or the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy are continuously operating to provide their respective governments with scientific advice on long-term and future matters of concern.

The timing of scientific advisory bodies will likely affect the way that their working processes are set up, coordinated and documented. Here we can observe to which extent routines are in place, how tasks are defined and divided, and how decisions are made. In some cases, these processes are highly formalized in a legal framework that provides organizations with a mandate to advise the government. In other cases, we see a rather spontaneous and fast forming of expert groups that are in exchange with advisory bodies without sticking to formalized procedures.  

The final aspect we highlight concerns the thematic orientation of the organization, to be understood as the way that it relates to societal fields. There are mainstream overarching topics on which advice is needed continuously. Take for example the What Works Network in the U.K. which carries out large-scale studies and randomized controlled trials in order to generate evidence that informs social policy on issues like crime reduction, homelessess, youth employment and education. Other than that we see that particular advisory bodies are formed in crises and on an acute topic and exist on a temporary basis. Here, for example, the Corona Scientific Advisory Board in Turkey is a formal organization established as a reaction to the coronavirus outbreak.


Tab. 4. Characteristics of the category “Composition”

The second category that we defined concerns the composition of scientific advisory bodies in terms of membership, domain diversity, interdisciplinarity and size. Are we looking at a small team of experts that has come together for the specific purpose of crafting scientific policy advice, or a large group with many different members? And how diverse is the expertise of the people involved in the organization? Here we distinguish between the diversity of social domains and of scientific disciplines; for example, the OMT – Outbreak Management Team –  in the Netherlands focuses exclusively on medical aspects of the pandemic, whereas more innovative organizations like the GovLab Austria comprise not only different disciplines, but also actors from different societal fields as policymakers, civil society representatives and business. Also, in terms of employment there are organizations for which scientific advisors work officially, but often advisors engage on a voluntary basis and do not get paid for their work. In terms of size, we see differences ranging from individual advisors as the Chief Science Advisory to the prime minister of New Zealand, but also global or European advisory networks such as the INGSA, the EU-wide Knowledge for Policy Platform.

Forms of interaction

Tab. 5. Characteristics of the category “Communication”

Looking at the forms of interaction we found that advisory organizations differ in terms or how their exchange is designed, in the level of co-creation, public engagement and formalized internal workflows. When speaking about exchange, we distinguish between linear or one-way communication versus a dialogical communication. Linear formats are often criticized and presented as outdated and ineffective; at the same time they constitute one of the most widespread modes of science policy advice. Through dialogical formats advice can be adjusted as to the current demands of both sides, it is considered to be the more solution-oriented and user-friendly way of cooperation. Take the example of te Knowledge for Policy Platform – an EU Commissions’ platform for evidence-based policymaking that aims to bring together evidence for policy from scientist across Europe and establishes for the “Knowledge services” that are multidisciplinary teams of relevant scientific experts and involve representatives from the European Commission. Both sides come together from the beginning – starting from defining a question together and keep up the exchange throughout the process. A next level of interaction is co-creation, when a dedicated new space is created for both sides to work together on producing new knowledge – this can be a new organization or department. Here again we can refer to the example of the GovLab Austria that is set up as a newly developed space where expertise is integrated from administrative personnel, private sector representatives and, of course, researchers. Furthermore, we distinguish the level of public engagement – meaning the scope in which an organization lets public discourses influence their work. For example, the Koi Tu: The center for informed futures is inspired in its activities by civil society debates nationally and internationally, this they state quite openly, while the work of other advisory councils remains under Chatham House Rule. Finally, our last category is about the level of formality in the advisory process. There are highly formalized, planned and bureaucratic advisory workflows, where advice passes through several stages before it is accepted. On the other hand, we see that a lot of scientific policy advice – even from organizations – happens informally, through individual contacts between experts and policymakers who enjoy a high level of trust.


Tab. 6. Characteristics of the category “Outputs”

At last, we analyzed which outputs different advisory organizations produced and tried to group them. Mostly, we observed that scientific insights were presented as impartial analyses that comprised overviews of existing studies; these are reports, papers, answers to a specific request. On the other hand, sometimes normative outputs are in place, where researchers take a stance, voice particular recommendations for action and concerns. For example, the RedTeam C19 in the Netherlands did not hesitate to advocate for certain measures to counter the corona pandemic, which they openly communicated through a dedicated section on their website. Apart from written formats, also public events or workshops are a format to communicate scientific insights to policymakers. The Canadian Science Policy Center, for example, has developed multiple events in order to provide for such conversations, among these such as “Science meets parliament” – a regular series of meetings between research groups and parliamentarians. Furthermore, we see that science-policy interactions do not necessarily happen spontaneously, given the potential of digital technology, the Science Advice Initiative of Finland developed a permanent digital science-policy platform designed to provide a search engine that would help finding researchers by their field of expertise or synthesize data and research results from different sources.   Another output are methodological guidelines or resources such as developing training or training materials for qualifying future science policy advisors. In this context, the INGSA is a good instance of a node that comprises tools, methodological guidelines and learning materials.

Conclusions & Further research

Our analytical framework allows us to compare mechanisms of scientific policy advice and show the whole plethora of organizations that exist in different countries. It has helped to examine existing solutions and to suggest how the fields of science and policy can be linked. It is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the science-policy interface, because different contexts and occasions require different approaches. As our examples show, some science-policy advisory bodies are very well organized and have clearly defined operating procedures and sometimes a legal framework, while others spring into action more ad hoc, for example in response to a crisis. At the same time, the kinds of expertise in focus can also vary, from communicating epidemiological scenarios for the purpose of outbreak containment to combining expertise from different scientific disciplines and professional practice to improve public services. In this context, we found the examples of organizations working on the premise of co-creation particularly fascinating. The trend from linear scientific policy advice to more dialogic approaches has also been described in the academic literature and can be confirmed with our analysis. In particular, our framework creates space for these non-linear relationships to encompass a potentially broad and diverse range of participants from different scientific disciplines and social sectors, and for deliberative processes that allow for cross-sectional collaboration.

Of course, our research was limited in time, so we were not able to map and consider all existing organizations. However, it appears that there is considerable public, political, and academic interest in more thoroughly mapping and categorizing intermediaries in the science-policy interface. This is all the more important given that scientific and technological aspects will become increasingly intertwined with sociological, economic, and political issues in the future.