Helen Clark NZ

“The Importance of Evidence-Informed Policy Making for the SDGs”: my keynote address to the Conference of the International Network of Government Science Advice. Tokyo, Tuesday 6 November 2018

In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, we see populist governments ignoring science and evidence as inconvenient truths. In this speech in Tokyo, I spoke of the challenges of achieving the SDGs and why it is important to draw on all available knowledge and expertise to drive progress on implementation. Here is the text:

Rt Hon Helen Clark

“The Importance of Evidence-Informed Policy Making for the SDGs”

Keynote Speech at Conference of International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)

Tokyo, 9 am, Tuesday 6 November 2018.

 Let me begin by thanking INGSA for the invitation to address this year’s conference with its theme of “Science Advice for a Changing World”.

 Your programme is of interest to me for two reasons: for

  1. the focus it places on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and for
  2. its overall promotion of the importance of evidence-informed policy-making.

As one who has occupied senior leadership positions for many years in first, domestic politics, and then at the United Nations Development Programme, I have depended on and greatly valued expert and free and frank advice. To embark on decision-making without that input is a risky endeavour.

 Agenda 2030 and the SDGs constitute an ambitious agenda, which, if implemented in full would transform the prospects of the world’s peoples and ecosystems.

 Achieving that, however, is a huge challenge. Many barriers stand in the way of success, not least:

This short summary of the challenges in the way of achieving the SDGs shows that it will take an extraordinary effort to reach them. Best efforts will require drawing on all relevant knowledge and capacities, and organising governments and mobilising civil society, including academic and research institutions to contribute.

 That assumes that governments actually want to embrace the sustainable development agenda and take steps to implement it. Doing so must lead to being prepared to be open to analysis of and advice on what the challenges actually are and their scale, and then to consider responses based on that advice. 

Many governments are prepared to follow that path, but for others a dispassionate analysis of challenges and options is an inconvenient truth. In a “post-truth”, “fake news” setting, science will be challenged, and so will solutions based on it.  

Let me instance three areas where the evidence points one way, but where populism and/or denial and/or fear of short-term political consequences point in another direction:

Yet how likely is that when major economies are far from executing such decisions? The role of coal is once again applauded by the USA Federal Administration; in China, local authorities appear to be proceeding with coal plant construction despite the central government trying to rein it in; and coal-powered plants are reported to be making a comeback in government thinking in India.

Overall, the scientific consensus on climate change points to the need for major change in the way the world produces and consumes – but the short-term political costs of action so often lead to delayed action. Yet, as the 2006 Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change told us, we either pay now for the energy and other transitions required, or we pay much more later – and for less optimal results. 

This is an area where we need to hear more from science and less from moralisers and populists. Drug policy in most countries is neither based on science nor informed by evidence of what works. Portugal, which has in effect defied the intent of the international conventions, decriminalised personal use and possession of drugs, and put in place major harm reduction measures, has seen its rate of drug-related deaths drop from being the highest in Western Europe in the 1990s to the lowest today. There has to be a message in that.

Other examples of policy which is driven by ideology and belief rather than science and evidence abound across: migration policy- leading to human rights abuses; penal policy – leading to unnecessarily high levels of incarceration; and education – leading to a narrow exams and results focus rather than to education for critical thinking and innovation.

My appeal to policy makers seeking to achieve the SDGs and national development aspirations would be always to seek the best advice they can, rigorously evaluate it, make decisions accordingly, and monitor the outcomes so course corrections can be made as required. 

Further my advice would be for governments to organise themselves to meet the demands of policy-making across complex sets of issues which are not the domain of any one sector or ministry.

Getting cross-departmental co-ordination and ensuring that each department can contribute meaningfully will mean resourcing their policy and advisory capacity, something on which government science advisors are themselves well-placed to advise. And let us also not overlook the critical role of local government – often the mandate and funding (if it exists) for action on the issues central to sustainable development will lie at the sub-national levels.

That capacity also needs to be applied to foresight on the future – to scanning the horizon continually for the new issues, challenges, opportunities and threats to which countries must respond. Building resilience into societies and systems and the capacity to adapt and innovate as new circumstances arise are critical in a world where more people are exposed to risk from weather-related and other disasters, and where economic globalisation exposes countries to events over which they have no control but around which they must manage.

The capacity to do all this may well not be available from and within standing government capacity – and so governments should be encouraged to engage with expertise in the academic and research communities to ensure that all knowledge relevant to decision-making can be tapped.

To conclude:

As a realist, I consider that very major, complex, and inter-linked challenges stand in the way of achieving the SDGs and national aspirations for human development.  As an optimist, I know that to address those challenges, we need a sound knowledge base, good analysis, and the right policy tools.

Those who work at the science-policy interface have a critical role to play in supporting the design of evidence-informed policy which can meet global and national goals. I wish this conference well in raising aspiration for what scientific advisors can contribute to that process.