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New research helps to inform the design of scientific advisory committees

September 28, 2018

At a time of "fake news" and a growing mistrust of scientific experts, researchers at York University's Global Strategy Lab are working to increase the likelihood that policy decisions will be informed by the best available science.

Steven J. Hoffman, Professor of Global Health, Law, and Political Science at York University, and his team at the Global Strategy Lab, convened an international group of experts from several disciplines to prepare 12 journals articles offering a broad suite of insight into how to effectively create and manage scientific advisory committees (SACs). The project was undertaken to support the World Health Organization in improving its own SACs that produce clinical, health systems and public health guidance.

The findings of the three-year-long effort were published this week as part of a special issue of the journal Global Challenges.

The special journal issue draws important lessons to be learned about SACs and their design, with two of the articles specifically considering SACs at the World Health Organization. These insights may help maximize the application of high-quality scientific research towards future policy and program decisions.

"The effectiveness of scientific advice depends greatly on having well-designed processes for generating that advice," said Hoffman. "With these 12 journal articles, we provide governments and international agencies with evidence-based guidance for setting up scientific advisory committees, tailoring them for each unique context, and ensuring that their work can be most impactful."

The special journal issue explores SACs in a number of areas including environmental policy in California and globally as well as malaria control and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The special issue also includes insights from interviews with 35 senior World Health Organization staff.

It approaches SACs through an institutional design lens, by analyzing their formation, their size, and their functionality among other criteria.

"The good news is that small design changes can greatly improve the effectiveness of scientific advisory committees for greater public benefit. The composition of a committee matters, so does its chair, diversity, decision-making rules, stakeholder engagement, and many other factors. Governments and agencies like the World Health Organization that convene many scientific advisory committees can take a leadership role in further developing the science of scientific advice by studying their own processes and drawing lessons for improvement over time," said Hoffman.

Some of the other key findings about scientific advisory committees include:
    Members of SACs must be transparent about their own conflicts, commitments, and biases which can then be appropriately managed

    SACs must balance the need to involve stakeholders in discussions without compromising the independence and integrity of the scientific process

    SACs facing scientific uncertainty should be transparent in how they evaluate evidence and should continuously discuss what it means to develop and provide scientific advice in political contexts

York University champions new ways of thinking that drive teaching and research excellence. Our students receive the education they need to create big ideas that make an impact on the world. Meaningful and sometimes unexpected careers result from cross-disciplinary programming, innovative course design and diverse experiential learning opportunities. York students and graduates push limits, achieve goals and find solutions to the world's most pressing social challenges, empowered by a strong community that opens minds. York U is an internationally recognized research university - our 11 faculties and 25 research centres have partnerships with 200+ leading universities worldwide. Located in Toronto, York is the third largest university in Canada, with a strong community of 53,000 students, 7,000 faculty and administrative staff, and more than 300,000 alumni.
York U's fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario's Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education.

Media Contact: Anjum Nayyar, York University Media Relations, 416-736-2100 ext. 44543,

York University

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