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Providing International Science Advice: Challenges and Checklists

science advice UK Europe

Scientists, engineers, technologists, and medical practitioners are frequently asked by overseas governments and institutions to provide their expert opinion.1 While such advice is sometimes remunerated and involves a legal contract, quite often it is offered gratis. This article focuses on a particular aspect of science advice: namely when foreign governments or institutions request science advice informally (i.e. without a contract). In such instances, we argue there are advantages in developing a code of conduct that reflects best practice, sets standards, outlines expectations, and manages risks. Such a concept inevitably raises questions such as, what particular elements might be included and what role, if any, would be played by a country’s foreign or diplomatic service? To answer these questions we must consider the parameters of such advice, why science advice is requested, who needs it, and the many challenges in providing this advice across borders.

What Constitutes Science Advice?

Science advice takes many forms.  It may, for example, be purely technical, regulatory, or deliberative; informal or follow from an inter-governmental meeting. It may be required at short notice in crises and emergencies, or be designed for longer-horizon planning. Science advice can correspondingly be aimed at addressing a single focussed issue or a far broader set of topics. The advice can be enlisted to inform a discussion or to fulfill a specific legal duty such as a bilateral treaty obligation or an international statutory requirement for a United Nations agency.

A core related question involves whether a given scientific challenge area is characterized by an enduring evidence base, with a solid literature, or if the evidence is incomplete or contradictory. In the latter case, caveats are likely to be needed, perhaps consisting of a set of outcome probabilities or a balance sheet describing the potential merits and risks of the various options.

Who Needs Science Advice?

Governments often seek advice to help address societal and economic issues. As such, science advice may contribute to long-term domestic planning in areas such as infrastructure investment (e.g., water, energy, food production) and development of population-wide skills (including investment in higher-education and research capabilities). In such scenarios, social science advice is playing an increasing role.2 Advice may also be needed to address short-term and acute challenges such as emergencies1 (accidents and natural hazards), conflict resolution, and financial constraints. All these issues are complex and span many different disciplines.

For example, when the Zika virus emerged in 2015-2016, many nations sought to understand its potential impact on their present and future healthcare provision.3 For these nations’ foreign ministries, an immediate concern was to ensure travel advice was informed by the best science understanding available and to help facilitate access to that knowledge.

It is becoming increasingly common to request advice across borders since a state does not necessarily have the scientific or technical expertise for all problems and eventualities that arise within its own borders. Much depends upon the challenge at hand, however, because while some questions can be addressed simply, many demand a complex approach. Thus, no one person or group has a sufficiently deep understanding of the problem, and foresight of its potential outcomes to offer advice in isolation.

At least as important, even when a state or institution believes it has access to appropriate expertise, is that people from across borders bring different perspectives, experiences, and ways of thinking.

In 2014, the Somerset Levels, in southwest England (land reclaimed many centuries ago), experienced extensive flooding.4 While the United Kingdom has considerable expertise in flood prevention engineering, its neighbors in the Netherlands are recognized as world leaders in the field. It therefore made sense for the UK to seek, and to be seen by the public as seeking, additional external expert advice. Thus, the UK Environment Agency brought in thirteen special Dutch water pumps to help divert water and lower river levels in the area.5 It is clear that advice can be particularly effective if provided by an international and internationally recognized expert group.  Nervousness towards such a group approach stems from the assumption that experts from diverse backgrounds and cultures may find formulating a consensus is itself a challenge.  However, scientists, especially within a discipline, share a common perspective and language, making this less problematic. Indeed, this is often reported as 'science for diplomacy’6, where science leads to improved political, social and economic links: that is, science builds diplomatic relations across borders.

Challenges in Providing Advice across Borders

Although there are clearly good reasons to engage in advice giving across borders, there are non-scientific challenges that need to be kept in mind.These challenges may take a number of forms. Here we identify six.

1. The advice giver must recognize and accept differences in values across borders and cultures. Advice on even the clearest technical issue, if placed in the wrong cultural context, will not be effective. Avoiding such an outcome may mean designating a cultural “translator” within the team to ensure material is delivered in a culturally sensitive way. Other times, simply acknowledging cultural differences or entering into a dialogue may be sufficient to avoid missteps—instead of going so far as to “translate,” or potentially mistranslate, content, especially considering that the recipient is probably the expert.

A good example of this is the debate over genetically modified (GM) crops which has played out very differently in the United States versus Europe. While voters in California rejected the labeling of GM food,7 a move also opposed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science,8 the European Union requires a stringent safety assessment before any genetically modified organism (GMO) is placed on the market.9

2. Participants need to anticipate possible third-party sensitivities, although doing so may be challenging in practice. In delivering advice, working with a culturally aligned partner nation can potentially dilute the perception of a country simply asserting a policy. Such a partnering occurred in 2011, through the UK government’s response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The UK government, drawing on the best independent science advice to assess the progression of the accident and its implications for society, concluded that the risks to Tokyo, where most UK citizens in Japan live, was small and thus did not require an evacuation. This information also reassured the Japanese public at a time of great confusion and doubt regarding the credibility of official information provided by the Japanese media.10

3. Historical sensitivities can have an impact on the governmental, institutional, or individual level. In some circumstances, an individual may not, for example, be willing to openly express the sensitivity, which then remains unrecognized, inhibiting further progress.

4. Advice givers must be mindful of preconceptions and concerns regarding their motives. At a national level, this challenge can be framed in rather obvious terms: what is Nation A really trying to get from Nation B by providing science advice? Although the mutually beneficial nature of the advice may be self-evident to the giver, the recipient may remain skeptical. On an institutional level, the concern might be that the institution will increase its international reputation, or gain some other advantage, possibly to the detriment of the recipient. To avoid the perception that an institution might be acting out of self-interest, stakeholders can enlist organizations with a long-term presence in a state or learned societies (such as academies of science) who might be seen as independent. The UK’s Newton Fund is an example of long-term relationship building that was described in a previous article in this journal.11

5. Public perceptions of advice sources will likely differ by country and culture. In some countries, local experts are considered less credible than those from certain overseas nations, while in other countries the reverse is true. The former case can understandably frustrate local experts, especially when, as discussed earlier, the external expert may not fully understand the local circumstances. Even when outside experts have some knowledge of the local context, the degree to which their input will be effective is not necessarily clear.

6. The notion of “independence” in sources of science advice also differs by country and culture. Here, the role of academics is especially interesting—as advice givers but also as drivers of public understanding of science. In the United Kingdom, the general perception—especially with the public—has long been that academics are trustworthy. Doctors, in particular, are regarded as the UK’s most trusted professionals, according to a 2015 survey.12,13 It is unsafe to assume the same holds true in other countries. 

Beyond these challenges there are other times advisors should act with caution.  We mention one as an example here: when advice is provided by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). In such cases it is important to be aware that the interpretation of the underpinning science evidence may be influenced by the motivation or political agenda of the NGO.  While NGOs may be rigorous about their science, advice givers using science developed by NGOs need to recognize areas of potential bias.

It seems then, much of the challenge comes down to maintaining credibility, be that as a nation, institution, team or individual.  It is often said that credibility is hard won and easily lost. So, what general advice is there for the advice provider? How does this expert (or team of experts) establish and maintain the legitimacy of the advice?

Fortunately, this challenge is not unique to the provision of international science advice, and other fields offer useful analogous material. For example, there are sets of statements used by expert witnesses when submitting evidence to courts, which can be attached to their evidence to demonstrate credibility.14  These statements make clear that the evidence has been provided in an open and transparent manner, addresses conflicts of interest and establishes the legitimacy of the advice giver. While legal frameworks may differ from country to country, this model provides a helpful paradigm.15 Similarly, the code of conduct to which professional licensed engineers are expected to adhere considers conflicts of interest, confidentiality, as well as health and safety matters. We have considered all such related material in formulating the following recommendations.

Practical Considerations for the Advice Giver

Advisors will find it helpful to consider the following nine points when preparing their advice in response to international requests:

  1. Be ready to demonstrate the impartiality of the data upon which the advice is based. This demands a well-constructed evidence base, perhaps presenting a number of options and delivering advice in the form of a balance sheet or a recognized numerical analysis.
  2. Indicate reliable sources for all factual information. For example, show that evidence is based on current global literature from reputable (internationally recognized) journals.
  3. Be able to show and state the extent to which the advice falls within the advice giver’s field of expertise.
  4. Especially if the topic is broad—and extends beyond the advice giver’s field of expertise—be able to show that other experts have been consulted and, ideally, that this additional expertise is recognized internationally. If such sources can be from a range of different countries, so much the better. (Of course, the advice may already be coming from an international team.)
  5. Declare potential conflicts of interest clearly and transparently. Considering the international nature of the advice, such conflicts could range beyond the financial realm.  More broadly, consider commenting on any issues that might adversely affect the opinion of the advice giver.
  6. Be open and transparent about any potential personal, commercial, national, or financial gains to be made from offering the advice.
  7. Especially when meeting face-to-face with recipients, be prepared to say you don’t know, aren’t sure, or need to consult further—but that you will be taking the following clear steps to get answers.
  8. Be aware of the legal responsibilities that go with advice giving—remunerated or not. Such responsibilities are, of course, country-specific, but they may well also depend on who within the country has asked for the advice. If the advice—despite being provided in good faith—turns out to be incorrect or to have detrimental consequences, proving the quality of the advice in court may become necessary, as it did in the Italian case stemming from the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.16  
  9. Maintain appropriate confidentiality and safeguarding of information, depending on the particular roles and responsibilities of recipients. Remember that advice is often provided to those who have legal or political obligations associated with their positions.

These nine points take time to consider. In an emergency situation, time to reflect and plan what and how advice is delivered is limited. Consequently, while advice givers might be made aware of such a list on their way to contribute in an emergency response, the focus of meetings will be to get on with the job. Thus, this guidance could be made available in advance and during training rehearsals and provided to people when their names are added to subject matter expert lists.

Looking Forward

The requirements for international science advice will continue to expand. There are a number of reasons, including the increasing sophistication of technology and pressure on resources, which in turn will demand earlier-stage planning.

Many nations have already developed databases of experts within their borders who are trained and ready to be called upon, especially in an emergency. In future, greater opportunities for training of experts or signposting to training will be required. Sharing training across borders leads to expanded horizons and resilience. As for UN and regional agencies, they provide these types of training for certain topics but not for the provision of general science advice. One organization that is providing science guidance is the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA). This group is building capacity by running workshops and conferences, and collaborating with a variety of national and international science organizsations, particularly the International Council for Science (ICSU).17

Part of advisers’ training could involve confirming that they will follow best practice guidelines to ensure that their advice is as accurate, transparent and independent as possible. What should be included requires more discussion, though the nine points in the previous section offer an initial step towards a ‘Code of Conduct’.  Some acknowledgment of local differences in legal systems and regulatory differences would remain and may be particularly important, for example, in respect of the medical science or engineered structures.  Nevertheless, much commonality may be found with respect to: transparency, conflicts of interest, the reporting of background knowledge, and the quality of evidence used. As noted above, expert witness declarations and other models already offer useful perspectives.

Points for a Foreign (or Diplomatic) Service

As more problems demand the attention of people with specialist knowledge, it seems likely that increasing numbers of scientists will become involved in providing advice across borders. There is no guarantee that scientists who are asked for advice have sufficient appreciation of the risks involved, particularly the legal implications of sharing their wisdom. Consequently, there is a greater probability that scientists will become embroiled in difficult situations with the potential serious diplomatic ramifications. Avoiding troubling outcomes requires comprehensive planning.

Providing specific support for every advice giver would be logistically impossible as well as undesirable. Nonetheless, signposting to a code of conduct that accounts for the legal, cultural, and political complexities of the specific localety would be helpful. Foreign service personnel are equipped to revise a general code of conduct to reflect local circumstances. In employing such a code, though, advice givers would need to know unmistakably that they were not receiving legal indemnity in any form—but rather counsel in good practices. Indeed, the foreign service cannot and should not be expected to provide indemnity for science advice givers in the circumstances discussed in this article.

In conclusion, providing informal advice across borders raises many issues that could be addressed by developing a code of conduct. Such a code would reflect best practice, set standards, manage expectations, and reduce risk. Its success will depend upon scientists working together with others, including ethicists and lawyers, to agree on the vision for and elements of such a code. Given the need to align advice with local legal and cultural circumstances, diplomats, who understand such subtleties, will have a useful role to play.



  1. OECD, Scientific Advice for Policy Making: The Role and Responsibility of Expert Bodies and Individual Scientists, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers no. 21 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2015),
  2. Adam C. G. Cooper, “Exploring the Scope of Science Advice: Social Sciences in the UK Government,” Palgrave Communications 2, no. 16044 (2016), available at
  3. See, e.g.,
  4. Somerset Levels and Moors: Reducing the Risk of Flooding,” Gov.UK, April 11, 2014,
  5. Steven Morris, “Somerset Levels Receive Giant Dutch Pumps to Funnel Flood Water to Sea,” Guardian, February 13, 2014,
  6. Royal Society and AAAS, New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy: Navigating the Changing Balance of Power (London: Royal Society, 2010),
  7. Adam Vaughan, “Prop 37: Californian Voters Reject GM Food Labelling,” Guardian, November 7, 2012,
  8. Statement of the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods,” American Association for the Advancement of Science, October 20, 2012,
  9. European Commission, “GMO Legislation,”
  10. Robin W. Grimes, Yuki Chamberlain, and Atsushi Oku, “The UK Response to Fukushima and Anglo-Japanese Relations,” Science & Diplomacy (June 2014),
  11. Robin W. Grimes and Claire McNulty, “The Newton Fund: Science and Innovation for Development and Diplomacy,” Science & Diplomacy (December 2016),
  13. Much has been written on this topic. Of particular use are Joseph Sanders, “Expert Witness Ethics,” Fordham Law Review 76, no. 3 (2007),; and Civil Justice Council, “Protocol for the Instruction of Experts to Give Evidence in Civil Claims,” June 2005 (amended October 2008),
  14. Engineering Council Code of Practice,” Institute of Engineering and Technology,
  15. Scientific Advisory Committees: Code of Practice,” Gov.UK, November 22, 2011,
  16. Stephen S. Hall, “Scientists on Trial: At Fault?” Nature 477 (2011): 264–69; and Edwin Cartlidge, “Italy’s Supreme Court Clears L’Aquila Scientists for Good,” Science, November 20, 2015,
  17. See the INGSA website,
Capacity Building and Development Diplomacy for Science Science in Diplomacy