During the Brexit referendum, a British politician made a now notorious quip about people having “enough of experts”. Yet evidence‐based decision‐making has become a byword for good governance. Many challenges demand input from experts, with almost every government arm having a science angle, be it in fisheries, agriculture, transport or drug policy. Scientific advice is crucial to deal with emergencies such as the Ebola or Zika outbreaks and for addressing long‐term threats such as food supply, water shortages or climate change. “Every department crosses over into science. It's just like finance really: you need money for everything”, said Frank Gannon, Director of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, Australia, and former Director of EMBO and Science Foundation Ireland. He thus believes that formal structures that provide expert advice to government are necessary, because otherwise “you are likely to pick up somebody's opinion that may have a self‐interest, overtly or covertly”.
A troubled relationship
However, the liaison between scientists and governments is not always a happy one. Researchers often complain about politicians cherry picking evidence to support particular policy decisions or policymakers who do not understand or act upon the correct evidence. Some advisors have even had bruising experiences at the coalface of policymaking. “When I started, I was under the impression that scientific advice would be listened to”, recalled David Nutt, psycho‐pharmacologist at Imperial College London, UK, who was sacked from the UK's Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs in 2009 after clashing with politicians over drug harm and classification. Memorably, he noted horse riding was more risky than taking ecstasy. He argued that illicit drugs should be classified according to actual evidence of harm and dependence, which would rate alcohol above ecstasy and cannabis.
… the liaison between scientists and governments is not always a happy one
Nutt commented …