5. Barriers and challenges for transnational co-operation around scientific advice

There are a number of important barriers to trans-national cooperation around scientific advice in crisis situations. These include: imbalances in scientific capacity between countries; lack of clearly defined domestic mechanisms for developing and using rigorous advice and a lack of understanding of existing mechanisms across countries; lack of incentives coupled with potentially serious liabilities for individual scientists and their institutions; legal and cultural differences; lack of cross-sectoral communication; and lack of trust between different actors and between public authorities, the scientific community and the public at large.


Several barriers and challenges for transnational co-operation on scientific advice and information and data sharing during crises were identified in the survey and during the case study discussions in the project workshop. For scientific advice to meet the needs of crisis managers and decision makers, it has to be relevant, timely, trusted and actionable. To achieve this, scientists and scientific advisors need access to the relevant data and information for their analysis, and the responsibilities (and liabilities) of different actors should be clarified in advance (see OECD, 2015 for a discussion of the conditions for providing rigorous scientific advice). Whilst scientists working in operational agencies, such as meteorological offices, are often well equipped to provide such advice, the valuable expertise of the broader academic scientific community is often less readily accessible because of these requirements. This expertise can be essential for sense-making in unfamiliar, complex or cascading crisis situations. Mapping scientific advisory mechanisms onto crisis management structures is complicated even within individual countries, let alone across countries, which complicates the processes for generating and accessing rigorous and coherent scientific advice in complex transnational crisis situations.

5.1. Building capacity to produce, absorb and use scientific advice

Different countries have differing capacity to generate, absorb, and make use of scientific knowledge and advice. Transnational scientific co-operation in crises requires knowledge and understanding the capabilities of all those involved. Less economically and scientifically advanced countries, as well as smaller ones, often have limited capacity to source advice domestically, and to absorb and make effective use of scientific data, information and advice. As co-operation is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, asymmetry of capacity weakens the whole process unless it is actively compensated for.

A country’s capacity to effectively make use of scientific advice can be developed by fostering its human capital, as well as the technological and institutional infrastructure to translate scientific evidence into decisions. Development of scientific human capital can best be achieved both through education and training and is a long-term strategic investment. Schemes that link this investment with relevant bodies in more advanced countries and in transnational organisations can accelerate the capacity building process and help to establish the trusted international networks that are important in times of crisis. Institutional capacity can be fostered, for example by promoting the creation of scientific advisory structures and processes where these are not already in place. Larger and more advanced countries can lead by example. They have a role to play in building capacity globally - it is in their own interest to ensure that crises, such as disease pandemics, can be effectively and quickly dealt with, wherever they arise.

5.2. Identifying institutions and contact points for co-operation

During a crisis, decisions must be made balancing scientific information and evidence with political, diplomatic, economic and logistical considerations. On occasions, this can result in different decisions being made in different constituencies. For example, different national decisions on whether to evacuate citizens or cancel flights between two countries. Understanding the scientific advice and the other factors and motives that have fed into the decisions of countries can reveal key differences in what information and data has been considered. Effective transnational scientific co-operation in crises requires understanding of the internal political and governance structures of countries involved and the identification of trusted contacts - individuals or institutions - in those countries.

One of the concerns that led to this project, and which was confirmed and reinforced by the survey, is the difficulty in identifying contact points responsible or competent to integrate data, information and scientific advice during transnational crises. As discussed throughout this report, the heterogeneity of existing institutional arrangements to produce and use scientific advice and share information during transnational crises makes it challenging to coordinate effectively at a transnational level. This is especially true in the case of complex and novel crises, although it is relatively easier in many OECD countries when dealing with hazard- or sector-specific situations, where the scientific advice mechanisms are integral to specific government agencies.

Lack of transnational coordination and of well-defined contact points can both slow down response and information sharing, and lead to redundant requests for information. Transnational coordination is also important to ensure that recipient countries are not submerged with conflicting information, and that the advice reflects the actual needs of the recipient country. As discussed above, transnational organisations, frameworks and networks are a powerful instrument to facilitate scientific advice in trans-national crises but their effectiveness depends on having identified and trusted national 'brokers', who can work across sectors and silos.

5.3. Quality assurance

Accountability for delivering high quality and accurate information was recorded in the survey as an important consideration, with regard to trans-national cooperation (OECD, 2015). The effectiveness of scientific advice derives from its quality, authority and legitimacy. Different countries have their own procedures to ensure these, which can be based for example on formal protocols, some form of peer review, the professional standing of the advisor(s), or a mix of these. These differences frequently reflect a country’s political or administrative culture, and can at times lead to diverging assessments between countries. Moreover, the relative importance attached to scientific advice can vary enormously in different crisis situations across different countries. Lack of knowledge of different factors and motives that underpin a decision can lead to misunderstandings that –in turn- hinder transnational co-operation. At the same time, overly-standardising procedures risks undermining the local legitimacy of the advice or information provided. Rather than forcing harmonisation, it is important to ensure compatibility by fostering mutual understanding of differences and trust in the respective outcomes.

What emerged from the survey for this study is that, in terms of quality assurance and robustness, often no formal process of quality control or verification are in place for scientific advice in crises. Instead countries indicated reliance on strong and trusted sources and/or the academic peer review process, as well as consensus building. In some circumstances traditional quality control can be replaced or supplemented by ad hoc processes relying on relevant expertise. One US agency reported that it relied on a two-day scientific panel assessment meeting during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Built-in redundancies can also provide some form of quality checking when multiple agencies consider the same data and information. For example, there are several different models for predicting the trajectory of tropical storms and these are run by different agencies in different countries, using the same data, with cross-checking between agencies before advice is given to relevant crisis management authorities. Internationally shared standards for data, and accreditation or other forms of formal recognition of information suppliers, can help to address quality assurance.

5.4. Incentives and liabilities

The incentives and disincentives for all stakeholders involved in transnational scientific co-operation in crises need to be considered. At the level of governments for example, authorities might be reluctant to acknowledge the existence or extent of a crisis in their own country, and to provide access to relevant information, for fear of economic and reputational damage (see Ebola, Case study 4). On the other hand, for advice and support from more advanced countries to be effective, it needs to take into account the best interest of the recipient countries alongside broader security interests, recognising that these may not always be well aligned. In such situations, diplomatic and scientific considerations need to go hand in hand, and establishing exchange mechanisms in advance can help overcome sensitivities or perceived diverging interests.

If leading researchers with cutting-edge scientific knowledge and skills are to be encouraged to engage with advisory roles, it is necessary to ensure that their contribution to policy is adequately recognised in academic settings. As discussed in the earlier OECD report on Scientific Advice for Policy Making: the Role and Responsibilities of Expert Bodies and Individual Scientists (2015) there are a number of disincentives for scientists to expose themselves to the potential risks associated with involvement in scientific advisory processes. Having appropriate mechanisms and processes in place can reduce risks such as legal liability but incentives and rewards are also necessary. In many countries it is difficult for academics to get support or recognition for their involvement in scientific advisory functions.

5.5. Legal and Cultural barriers

Different countries have different laws and regulations with regard to data protection that can restrict sharing across borders. For example in the Zika pandemic (Case study 4), the sharing of clinical data and samples between countries was limited by Brazilian law. National security concerns limit the sharing of many types of scientific information, including in some countries, seismological, hydrological and radioactivity data. Economic and commercial interests can also have an important influence on data and information sharing, as can be seen from the communication challenges between government and private sector actors in the Fukushima nuclear incident.

Cultural and language barriers have also been identified as a challenge for transnational collaborations to produce and deliver scientific advice and to share information and data. Ensuring that appropriate contact points are in place, who can mediate between languages and cultural contexts, can help to mitigate these challenges. Fostering transnational networks of experts, crisis managers and advisors sharing a common language (for example among francophone countries) can also help addressing challenges.

5.6. Cross-sector communication and brokerage

It is important to realise that cultural barriers exist not only between countries, but also between different sectors of society and between different parts of governments and large organisations. Given the broad range of advisory mechanisms, it is important to consider the differences between academic, private sector and policy cultures, their organisation, and their incentives and rewards structures. Effective brokerage is needed to ensure that such differences don’t obstruct the effective provision of scientific advice during crises.

In crisis situations decision-makers are likely to face intense pressure for their time and attention and this is an important consideration in relation to the provision of scientific advice. Scientists need to adjust their messages to accommodate this. The characteristics of a good research scientist are not necessarily the same as those of an expert performing an advisory role in a situation of crisis. The effective provision of advice requires not only a deep knowledge of the relevant issues but also a range of other skills (OECD, 2015). These include experience in dealing with the policy and decision-making world, and an understanding of the reality of high-stakes decision-making under pressure. Clear communication skills and the ability to understand and anticipate the needs of decision-makers are key to ensure that advice can be quickly digested and acted upon. Diplomatic skills are also needed for experts advising in the context of transnational crises, where they may need to understand and deal with the political and cultural realities of the countries involved.

Although scientific advisory skills are not necessarily gained during traditional scientific training, they can be developed through specific training, work experience, and exercises and by fostering relationships between scientists, policymakers, and crisis managers in times of calm. In some countries the links between crisis management personnel and the scientific community at large are well established. For example, the Crisis Management Coordination Secretariat of Sweden maintains close contact with academic networks and ongoing dialogue about the most recent academic findings. Input is gathered from a wide variety of actors and is then assessed within the crisis management organisation of the government offices. Identifying and supporting scientists who are interested in working at the science-policy interface can improve the capacity needed to prepare, respond to and recover from crises.

5.7. Public communication and social media

A major challenge faced during crises is that conflicting scientific information will be delivered by different sources both to decision-makers and to the wider public. This can jeopardise effective decision-making and undermine public trust in the recommendations issued by government and the scientific advice that supports those recommendations. This is especially true in the case of transnational scientific co-operation in crises, where the number of sources (and audiences) is multiplied. The community of institutions that provide scientific advice must ensure that the necessary scientific debate can take place, while protecting the consistency, authoritativeness and clarity in their advice to decision-makers and the general public (OECD, 2015).

The importance of public communication and transparency during a crisis was highlighted by several respondents to the project survey. Timing was a key issue here with some countries only routinely disclosing information after an event was over and others favouring immediate release, although the nature of the crisis had an important influence on timing. Balancing confidentiality and ethical responsibility against transparency and public benefit was also cited as an important consideration with regards to the release of scientific information and advice. In the international context, it was recognised that delays in releasing scientific advice and the data underpinning advice can ultimately prevent other countries (and actors) from full consideration of the evidence used by their counterparts in decision-making. The result can be wasted time, resources, and ultimately greater confusion, damage and loss.

Many of the issues relating to public communication of scientific advice and public engagement in scientific advisory processes are considered in the OECD report (OECD, 2015) that was a precursor to the current study. With the rapid evolution of information and communication technologies and moves toward open science, there is a growing interest of civil society in scientific advice and new opportunities for engagement. In crisis situations the importance of openness and transparency in scientific advisory processes needs to be tempered by the primary requirement for rigorous and clear scientific advice to inform quick and effective decision-making. The public communication of scientific advice should normally be aligned with the broader crisis communication strategy, which may encompass considerations aimed at reducing public concern and maintaining trust in government through meaning-making (OECD, 2015). Responsibility for public communication of scientific advice in crisis response situations needs to be clearly defined and those responsible for communication in one country should ideally be in close liaison with their relevant counterparts in other countries.

Social media are playing an increasingly important role in the context of scientific advice in crises, both as a communication channel and as a source of potentially valuable information (OECD, 2015). As a communication channel, social media enable rapid contact with a wide audience, including those that might otherwise be excluded from institutional communication channels, with warnings and updates. As a source of information, these media can potentially function like a real-time monitoring channel and several OECD countries are now experimenting with tools to screen social media networks during crises (OECD, forthcoming). Yet, those same features that make social media a potentially powerful tool also introduce new challenges. False or contradictory information can spread fast, generating confusion (OECD, 2015). This also means that as a source of information, social media sources require extra care and validation. The ambiguity which is intrinsic to the information derived from social media for decision-making can be mitigated by triangulation with other sources, and can be itself a useful source of intelligence about public perception.

5.8. Trust and mutual understanding

Effective co-operation in the production of scientific advice and the exchange of data and information during crises requires understanding and overcoming the cultural differences existing between the stakeholders involved. Such differences exist not only between countries, but also between sectors, industries, disciplines, and even branches of the same organisation. This does not necessarily mean that practices should be harmonised, but rather that differences should be acknowledged and that ways to work with them should be found.

Trusted relationships are a key enabler for such co-operation, alongside formal frameworks and established protocols. While formal instruments are fundamental to establish the institutional infrastructure for effective co-operation, these are not sufficient on their own, and may not be flexible enough to cope with unexpected situations. In the context of transnational co-operation in scientific advice in crises, trust can take many forms. These include trust between organisations, trust between countries, trust and between advisors and decision-makers; trust in the data and scientific advice exchanged between countries; trust by citizens in advice from scientists.

Box 5.1. Case study 5: Scientific advice for novel crisis: space weather

An extreme space weather event is not a well-known phenomenon for crisis managers or government decision makers. Yet such an event has the potential to trigger a regional or global crisis with multiple serious and cascading impacts. Rehearsing scenarios in preparation for such an event can help build flexibility and resilience into crisis response mechanisms and illustrate the importance of access to accurate and timely scientific data and information for multiple sources.

A space weather event can occur when solar activity generates emissions of electromagnetic radiation, energetic charged particles and magnetised plasma that affect the electromagnetic conditions surrounding Earth. This can disrupt critical infrastructure components both in space and on the ground, including satellites, GPS, radio signals and electrical transmission grids. Air transport can be impacted both by loss of communication and navigation systems, but also by increased risk of radiation to passengers and crew. Railroad networks can be affected by damage to track circuits and equipment, as well as signalling anomalies that increase the risk of accidents.

Predicted contemporary impacts of a repetition of the most extreme solar storm event in recorded history (the “Carrington Event” in 1859) include power outages to 20-40 million people in the US for durations from 16 days to 1-2 years, with a cost estimate in the trillions of dollars. Such an event would have impacts cutting across government agencies, nations and continents. Even the most developed economies could suffer catastrophic failures that overwhelm communications grids – in fact the complexity of network infrastructure and greater needs/expectations of victims and responders increases the consequence of system failure in developed nations reliant on such systems.

How would government decision makers handle such a complex, unfamiliar crisis?

Because the predictability of space weather is limited, governments and crisis managers should expect very short notice if a major event were to happen. For example, heightened sunspot activity might precede a major solar flare or eruption of an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME) by a few days, but once a CME is detected, it can arrive at the Earth’s magnetosphere within 17-24 hours. Warnings would be transmitted via national specialised agencies, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Centre, the UK Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre, the European Space Agency and others, alerting government cabinet offices to activate emergency scientific advisory mechanisms to help interpret information about the unfolding situation.

This is clearly a case for which scientific advice is critical in the preparedness phase for risk assessment – stress-testing scenarios and providing input to help assess vulnerabilities, understand linkages and identify possible mitigations based on analysis of complex space weather hazards. During an event, scientific advice is needed for understanding its temporal and spatial scale – enabled by repeated running of forecasting models to generate increasingly specific information about the nature, timing, location and magnitude of potential impacts. Such information allows authorities to ready themselves and begin to focus efforts to certain tasks or regions as the forecasting becomes more specific and detailed.

Clear strategies are needed for transnational communication and coordination of advice to support early warning and sense making. Important transnational initiatives are already underway for coordinated space weather prediction and monitoring, and standardisation and enhancement of space weather data exchange and delivery through the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) information system. Different data systems (e.g. geospatial and real-time sensory data feeds) will need to be integrated operationally in order to generate accessible and relevant data for specific stakeholders, regions and localities. Likewise the operational and research infrastructures that carry out the observations which generate this data need to be considered as a sustainable strategic investment.

Trust cannot be mandated or enforced. Instead, trusted relationships need to be fostered by creating an environment of confidence that promotes values such as transparency and co-operation, and by providing opportunities for stakeholders to work together, both at the individual and organisational level. Prolonged and iterative interaction, for example through joint exercises and training in times of calm, fosters familiarity and mutual understanding that can help overcome differences and build trusted relationships (OECD, forthcoming). For example, the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission holds a Balex Delta exercise every year and participating organisations have pointed out that such joint exercises play a vital role by testing the readiness of every participating country and highlighting capabilities to help out neighbour countries. A very recent report from the Dutch Safety Board on cross-border cooperation on nuclear safety also concluded that more joint exercises with neighbouring countries were necessary (2018). Such exercises can also provide a mechanism to rebuild trust when it is weakened. Trusted international networks, involving a variety of actors and institutions, are the critical foundation for ensuring that the best available scientific evidence is made available in a timely manner to inform decision-making during international crises.

Building mutual understanding and trust between those involved in producing scientific advice and those who use this advice to manage crises is a particular challenge when the two communities, or parts of them, are not co-located in the same institutional setting, as is the case with academia and the civil defence agencies that are often responsible for crisis management. As discussed earlier, when crises are novel, complex or cascading there are particular challenges in ensuring that all the necessary scientific perspectives are taken into account in decision-making. One way to both assess and improve the needs, capacity and processes for generating scientific advice in trans-national crises is to carry out preparedness building exercises. Many OECD countries perform such exercises nationally to test governmental crisis response systems and some exercises have been carried out internationally for specific groups of key actors, e.g. the HLRF has organised several such exercises with its network of strategic crisis managers. However, there is a need for more extensive international exercises that bring together more diverse groups of actors and in particular engage those involved in providing scientific advice.


Dutch Safety Board (2018), Cooperation on nuclear safety, Dutch Safety Board, Hague, www.onderzoeksraad.nl/uploads/phase-docs/1721/0044e54a19d020172884-rapportage-interactief-kerncentrales-engels-180126.pdf?s=9C5926EFB9C2489C1D8D1FFFA23618D8FC3B239F.

OECD (forthcoming), Risk Governance Report, Implementing the OECD Recommendation on the Governance of Critical Risk, OECD Reviews of Risk Management Policies, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2015), "Scientific Advice for Policy Making: The Role and Responsibility of Expert Bodies and Individual Scientists", OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, No. 21, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/5js33l1jcpwb-en.

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