2. The current landscape and project design

Scientific advice plays an important role in the management of crises but can also be a source of dissent between countries. This study explores the challenges to international coordination with regards to scientific advice. To this end, a cross country survey was conducted and the outcomes were fed into an international workshop that brought together crisis managers and scientists. This workshop focused on the in depth analysis of specific case studies.


2.1. Scientific advice in crisis management

The complexity and interconnectedness of contemporary societies means that scientific insight is often needed to inform policies and decision-making. This is especially true in the response to crisis situations, when scientific advice can play a key role. In this particular context, and as used throughout this report, scientific advice refers to the processes, structures, and institutions through which crisis managers and other decision-makers receive and consider scientific and technological knowledge and data to make sense of, and respond to, crisis situations.

Effectively responding to crises, particularly when they are novel, large scale or complex, can require the exchange of data, information, and advice across national boundaries. Transnational scientific co-operation in crises however poses a number of challenges, as seen in recent cases such as the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, the Great East Japan earthquake and ensuing nuclear accident in 2011, and the recent Ebola and Zika epidemics. During a crisis, decisions must be made balancing scientific information and evidence with political, diplomatic, economic and logistical considerations. At times, this can result in different decisions being made in different constituencies for the same crisis situation. For example, different national decisions on whether to evacuate citizens or cancel flights between two countries. Understanding the scientific advice that has fed into the decisions of different countries can help explain why these decisions were taken and improve the coherence of crisis response across different countries.

2.2. Existing work and rationale for the project

The OECD Recommendation on the Governance of Critical Risks adopted by the OECD Council in 2014 recommends that government strengthen crisis leadership, early detection and sense-making capacity and conduct exercises to support inter-agency and transnational co-operation by (…) developing strategies, mechanisms and instruments for “sense-making” to ensure reliable, trusted and coordinated expert advice translates into informed decision-making (OECD, 2014). In 2015, the OECD released a report exploring the role and responsibilities of experts providing scientific advice for policymaking (OECD, 2015a), a theme which had been brought to the fore by the trial of seismic experts advising on the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009. The report recognised the importance of understanding the transnational dimension of scientific advice during crises, and recommended that governments establish effective mechanisms for ensuring appropriate and timely advice in crisis situations, including mechanisms to facilitate transnational co-operation between advisory structures. This resonates with similar conclusions reached by the OECD High Level Risk Forum (HLRF), discussed in their 2015 report on “The changing face of strategic crisis management” and further explored in a number of thematic workshops of the OECD network on strategic crisis management (OECD, 2015b). These previous initiatives provide the rationale for this project, which builds on this earlier work and is aimed at both the science policy and crisis management communities.

The OECD work in this area also resonates with that of other organisations. The 2017 UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR, 2015) for example underlined the need for better accessibility to data and timely sharing of information through effective mechanisms and networks at national, regional and transnational levels. The need for data exchange platforms and capacity building is increasingly recognised. Recently, the European Commission’s Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Centre (DRMKC), founded the Risk Data Hub (EC, 2018), noting that ‘the increasing incidence of disaster risks from hazards, demanded an improved dynamic approach on data sharing in order to increase the efficiency of risk management.’ More generally, efforts to build capacity and enable mutual learning in the field of scientific advice to policy- and decision-making have been promoted by a number of international entities including, the EC Joint Research Centre, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA, 2018) and the Foreign Ministries Science and Technology Advisors Network (FMSTAN).

2.3. Aims and focus

Building on these previous efforts and recommendations, the OECD Global Science Forum (GSF) partnered with the OECD High Level Risk Forum (HLRF) to launch the present project with the following aims:

  • To develop an improved understanding of mechanisms and channels for transnational scientific co-operation in crises, how these mechanisms interact across constituencies, and the barriers that exist to the transnational sharing of scientific information, data, and advice in crises.

  • To lay the foundations for more effective transnational exchange by promoting mutual learning among countries and stakeholders.

Building on previous work, this project specifically focuses on the transnational exchange of data and information and co-ordination of scientific advice between national systems in crisis situations. The focus is on crises caused by environmental hazards (natural, geological and hydro-meteorological) and/or health-related hazards (such as pandemics and food safety incidents), and on circumstances where transnational co-operation is needed, including novel and complex crises (see ahead 4.2). Issues related to scientific advice more generally, such as independence, transparency, and public communication, and those limited to individual countries, have been explored in other documents (OECD, 2015a) and are addressed here only insofar as they are relevant to transnational scientific co-operation in crises. Moreover, as the focus here is on transnational co-operation between national scientific advice mechanisms, the role of international organisations is considered mainly in relation to how they interact with national advisory mechanisms.

2.4. Development of the report

2.4.1. Partners involved

This report is produced by GSF under the guidance of an Expert Group (EG) representing a range of OECD member and Key Partner countries and the EC. These members come from government and academia and have a range of subject expertise and experience. Full details of the expert group membership are provided in Annex A. The work was carried out in partnership with the OECD HLRF, and with the support from the UK Government Office for Science.

2.4.2. Survey

As part of the project, a survey of 18 (mainly OECD) countries and of the European Union (EU) was conducted using available documents and a questionnaire sent to national and EU bodies responsible for responding to major crises (see Annex B). The aim was to capture information on responsibilities and processes for providing scientific and technical advice during transnational crises. The survey questions were developed in consultation with the EG based on their expertise and experience. These attempted to capture information about specific mechanisms, including the sense-making and communication processes, access to and use of national and transnational sources of information, as well as characteristics of flexibility, robustness, breadth, quality assurance, and barriers to collaboration and exchange.

The identification of survey participants took into account the known differences in the types of scientific advice systems and structures in OECD and partner countries (OECD, 2015a). The survey process also acknowledged that different crises may require a more centralised or more distributed response, for instance depending on scale or nature of the hazard. Multiple survey respondents, with knowledge of different types of crisis, were thus solicited in several countries.

An initial list of contacts and respondents was generated through nominations by the expert group, the analysis of event proceedings, internet searches, and information about contact points from established networks including the OECD HLRF network of strategic crisis managers and the European Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). The challenges encountered in identifying a full range of suitable survey participants for the relevant countries became in themselves an indicator of the need to establish a map of the transnational landscape in the area.

2.4.3. Workshop

A key part of the project was a workshop organised at Wilton Park (West Sussex, UK) in September 2017 in partnership with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the UK Met Office, the UK Government Office for Science and other partners. The workshop specifically focussed on trans-national crises caused by infectious diseases and environmental/hydrological hazards. It brought together fifty scientists, policy-makers and crisis management practitioners from twenty countries (Wilton Park, 2017a). A key aim of the overall project was to promote mutual learning among countries and stakeholders, and fostering the establishment of transnational networks. The workshop was therefore designed to both collect information and insights to inform this report, and to facilitate mutual learning and networking.

The workshop focused on a set of real and simulated case studies (summarised in boxes in this report). These were used as a collective learning exercise to identify the challenges that have hindered or may hinder information and data sharing, as well as options and possible steps to enable information and data sharing in future crises. The deliberations of the workshop were structured according to the following themes: the major challenges to sharing information transnationally when responding to transnational crises, and how to address them; mechanisms for ensuring provision of scientific and technical advice to governments during transnational crises; ensuring that scientific advice is based on good quality, up-to-date information in situations where decisions have to be made rapidly.

Findings from the workshop have been summarised in a separate report (Wilton Park, 2017a), as well as being incorporated in the present document. The workshop report was also discussed at the 7th OECD High Level Risk Forum meeting in December 2017, during which crisis managers from OECD countries expressed the need to design scientific advisory mechanisms that take into account the specificities of crisis situations. They emphasised the need for timely and consistent scientific advice and the accountability of scientific advisors.

2.5. Structure

This report includes three core chapters, followed by concluding comments. Following this overall introduction, Chapter 3 introduces the complex nature of contemporary crises, and the importance of scientific advice, data, and knowledge in crisis management and response. The multiple roles scientific advice plays in the crisis management cycle, and the diversity of stakeholders and institutional mechanisms involved are also discussed. Chapter 4 explores the transnational dimension, discussing the importance of transnational scientific co-operation in crises, the range of circumstances in which it is required, and the variety of existing frameworks and networks for such co-operation. Building on these, Chapter 5 presents the main challenges to effective and efficient transnational scientific co-operation in crises, as identified in the survey and the workshop. A range of potential solutions are also identified. Finally, Chapter 6 introduces the recommendations for how to improve the transnational provision and use of scientific advice in crises. These recommendations are detailed in Chapter 1. Five case studies, which were discussed in detail at the Wilton Park workshop, are presented in boxes throughout the report. Each of these illustrates a number of issues that inform the analysis elsewhere in the report. Schematic diagrams included for several of these case studies illustrate the complexity of data and information flows between different organisations during crises.


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