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Scientific support for policymakers in addressing long-term societal challenges – a core responsibility of SCNAT

Conducting a science-policy dialogue is a demanding enterprise. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the scientific community was required, almost overnight, to mobilise experts from a wide variety of disciplines, even though a robust network – with comprehensive scientific expertise and communication skills – to facilitate dialogue concerning the impacts of such health risks on society did not yet exist in Switzerland. The present contribution, focusing on the activities of the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT), shows what is needed to maintain a long-term dialogue with policymakers.

Image: SCNAT

For around 30 years, through a variety of thematic forums operating within the Platform Science and Policy (SAP) to address key long-term societal challenges, the SCNAT, in line with its mission, has been pursuing an active dialogue between science and policymakers (Messerli et al. 2015). Over the years, in areas such as climate and global change (ProClim Forum), biodiversity loss (Swiss Biodiversity Forum), landscape-changing processes (Forum Landscape, Alps, Parks), genetic research (Forum for Genetic Research) and sustainable energy (Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences Energy Commission), SCNAT has become established as an important, independent scientific partner, particularly for national political institutions (Federal Council, National Council, Council of States, Federal Offices).

Crucial role of science

As has been demonstrated once again by the current work of the Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force, science plays a crucial role in addressing major societal challenges. While management of the pandemic is an immediate, relatively short-term task (though it could well turn into a long-term challenge), there are a number of evident parallels with the role played by science in resolving longer-term problems, such as those mentioned above. In all of these cases, the questions to be dealt with are extremely complex, and they can only be successfully tackled through interdisciplinary collaboration by scientists from a wide range of disciplines, with the requisite integrated approach and scientific depth.

Repeatedly, the same responsibilities arise, such as continuous review and synthesis of the current state of knowledge and the communication thereof to policymakers and society in a suitable, widely comprehensible form. Here, a particular challenge lies in the careful handling of the uncertainties involved in scientific conclusions and forecasts, which is of vital importance for building trust in science among policymakers and society. Finally, there also arises the critical question to what extent, on the basis of its findings, science should not only identify options for policy action, but may or indeed must also issue recommendations.

Below, a number of general remarks are first made concerning the role and responsibility of science in the dialogue with policymakers on dealing with major societal challenges, and it is discussed what this means for the policy dialogue activities of the Academies and of SCNAT in particular. It is then described how SCNAT fulfils its dialogue mission. Finally, a number of topics are identified on which the science-policy dialogue should focus in the future: what is at issue is nothing less than the transformation of society in pursuit of sustainable development, which must be jointly supported by Switzerland’s education, research and innovation (ERI) institutions.

Responsibility of science and role of the Academies in addressing complex societal challenges

With its fundamental knowledge and its – particularly technological – developments, science not only influences economic and social progress but also has a responsibility to help analyse and mitigate the adverse effects associated with growing prosperity. These include, for example, climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution with xenobiotics, but also challenges arising from increasing digitalisation or global mobility. An essential element involved in fulfilling this responsibility is support for evidence-based policy. Such support can be provided through intensive, continuous dialogue with policymakers (e.g. Federal Council, National Council and Council of States, cantonal governments) and political institutions (e.g. Federal Offices, cantonal agencies).

Science-policy dialogue is a collective endeavour

A single voice representing science – and thus a clearly defined partner for policy dialogue – does not exist in Switzerland. The various ERI institutions (swissuniversities, ETH Domain, Swiss National Science Foundation, Innosuisse, Swiss Science Council, Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, etc.) have different roles within Switzerland’s scientific system and fulfil these in different ways – also in the dialogue with policymakers and society. Together, however, they can indeed be understood as the institutionalised voice of science in Switzerland. The conduct of the science-policy dialogue is therefore to be seen as a collective enterprise, comprising different phases, with different roles being played by the various ERI institutions.

The first phase involves development of the scientific foundations required for the analysis and management of complex societal challenges. This is the primordial function of science, also requiring it to undertake the early identification efforts which are needed to prepare for future challenges. This phase is of crucial importance since, without sound knowledge, the dialogue will rapidly falter and trust in science will decline. Here, as a research centre of very high quality, Switzerland is extremely well placed, at least as far as scientific areas with a primarily disciplinary orientation are concerned. With regard to the transdisciplinarity required to address complex societal challenges, however – as is the case throughout the world – there is still substantial potential for development.

Broadly supported by experts

In the second phase, the knowledge acquired on a particular topic, but also the associated uncertainties, must be reviewed and synthesised for policy dialogue purposes. Here, given the complexity of the topics, a broad scientific basis will always be required (natural and social sciences, engineering and medical sciences, etc.). This in turn calls for places where such intra- and interdisciplinary exchanges (including relevant practice) are organised with key societal challenges in mind.

This is where the Academies come into play, as the other ERI institutions have different responsibilities and priorities. For thematic areas in which the natural sciences play an important role, the SCNAT Platform Science and Policy (SAP), with its various forums and working groups, has served precisely this function for many years now. Here, researchers from across Switzerland are brought together to review scientific knowledge – in iterative processes – for use in the policy dialogue. As the researchers’ involvement is always unremunerated (under the so-called militia system), this requires on their part a considerable intrinsic motivation to make such a contribution for the benefit of society and, on the part of their home institutions, an environment which values and supports such a commitment.

Continuous dialogue with politics

Finally, in the third phase, the knowledge under review must be fed into the policy debate in a comprehensible manner via a wide variety of channels for communication and dialogue. This phase calls for a broad range of contacts across the political landscape, a high level of scientific expertise, and excellent communication skills in the widest sense (language, self-presentation, active listening and much else besides). Here, too, the Academies assume an important role, serving as an interface between science and policy and pursuing a continuous dialogue over an extended period, with members of the militia bodies and forum staff at the SCNAT office all being involved in the systematic maintenance of contacts.

On the scientific side, the science-policy dialogue process with regard to long-term challenges is thus shaped by the interplay of research institutions and the Academies. The research institutions generate knowledge (phase 1) and – through the involvement of numerous experts – participate in efforts to review (phase 2) and communicate it to policymakers (phase 3). The Academies serve as a neutral hub for phases 2 and 3. Their independence rests on the fact that they do not have to showcase their own research activities and results, but provide a focal point for broad-based expertise.

However, with a view to the identification of emerging issues, SCNAT also increasingly sees its role as that of a promoter and supporter of new inter- and transdisciplinary research topics (phase 1), especially with regard to complex systemic questions which are relevant for the transformation to a more sustainable society.

Involvement and modus operandi of SCNAT in policy dialogue

Militia committees and the SCNAT office

SCNAT currently hosts more than 50 technical committees, with almost 500 selected experts from Swiss higher education institutions and practice. Around 10 committees (forums) are explicitly concerned with complex long‑term societal challenges, reviewing the current state of scientific knowledge, identifying options for action and the consequences thereof, and feeding their findings into the dialogue with policymakers and society. Since many current and future challenges cannot be addressed by one forum alone, close collaboration both within and beyond SCNAT is becoming increasingly important.

The members of the militia committees generally come from an extremely demanding and highly competitive professional environment, which means that often only limited resources are available for this commitment. SCNAT therefore provides support in the form of skilled scientific staff, who organise the experts’ cooperation, prepare specific products under the guidance of the committees, maintain ongoing contacts with scientific and political circles and thus prepare the ground so that scientific actors with excellent communication skills can “take the stage” for dialogue in a wide variety of settings.

Development of the thematic agenda

The thematic agenda for policy dialogue derives on the one hand from early identification activities, for which the Academies have a legal mandate. SCNAT picks up socially relevant challenges, which are or will be of political importance in the medium to long term. It prioritises these thematic areas, elaborates the requisite knowledge and ensures that it can contribute to policy dialogue, and also participate in public debate, on the most important topics at the best possible time and in an appropriate manner.

At the same time, SCNAT is also guided by the political agenda, aware that the need for scientific advice is greatest during political deliberation on socially relevant problems. SCNAT thus also endeavours to provide support for policymakers in relation to short-term challenges. Also taken into consideration in the definition of the agenda for policy dialogue are changing requirements during the policy cycle, especially in the case of long‑term societal challenges. Here, what is required is systems knowledge for problem framing, target knowledge for policy development, transformation knowledge for policy implementation, and evaluation knowledge for policy review (cf. Queevauviller et al. 2005; Wuelser et al. 2012).

Dialogue with all relevant political and societal stakeholders

In policy dialogue, SCNAT always seeks to establish the broadest possible range of contacts and to engage in structured dialogue with all relevant political and societal stakeholders. The various groupings and factors exerting an influence within Switzerland’s democracy are too numerous for it to be possible to establish a comprehensive, effective policy dialogue on long-term challenges by focusing on individual partners (e.g. a parliamentary committee, a single Federal Office or a political party). It is thus essential to have an understanding and knowledge of the political stakeholder landscape in the widest sense, encompassing not only executive and legislative bodies and their actors (collegial authorities, individuals, secretariats, etc.) but also the administration, parties and their secretariats, cantonal coordination bodies, associations, professionals, and communicators such as journalists, etc.

Equally important is an understanding of the mechanics of policymaking – in particular, the legislative process in the broadest sense. There exists in policymaking a kind of non-public phase, during which policy challenges are identified and discussed at various levels – not least within the public administration. SCNAT therefore endeavours – via continuous efforts to build confidence among relevant groups – to be present even at this early stage, since here decisive preparations are already made, e.g. in the form of draft Acts or Ordinances, for the subsequent formal legislative process. This unofficial phase is of such importance for the science-policy dialogue because, at this point, arguments based on the intrinsic logic of the subject matter are more readily attended to. The further a legislative project progresses through the formal process, the less room is available for the voice of science, as political stakeholders’ legitimate interests and practical constraints (finances, societal acceptance, etc.) become increasingly prominent.

Wide variety of channels for dialogue

At the science-policy interface, SCNAT uses a wide variety of channels for communication and dialogue – constantly reviewed and adapted – to ensure that the dialogue sought on all fronts is effectively nurtured and continuously maintained. Typical channels include, for example, factsheets, newsletters, fundamental reports, videos, public and invitation-only events of various kinds (conferences, workshops, briefings, etc.), appearances before relevant committees (parliamentary committees, associations, etc.), online thematic portals and social media.

To use all these channels successfully, SCNAT tailors both the content and the design as closely as possible to the various target groups. The latter is particularly vital: whether and how a message is received depends to a large extent on language, comprehensibility, presentation, etc. Here, too SCNAT relies on appropriately skilled staff at its office to support the militia committees of the forums and to maintain contacts with the political system. It is also important to secure the services of renowned researchers with outstanding communication skills, who – on the ground prepared by the SCNAT office – can contribute directly at key venues and justify their position to policymakers.

Quality assurance for print products

At SCNAT, all print products developed for policy dialogue are subject to comprehensive quality assurance, comprising three main elements:

  1. Strategic oversight by the Executive Board of SCNAT: This body assesses on the basis of specific criteria whether a product should be developed and, if appropriate, gives approval for its development; a delegate from the Executive Board supervises the development of the product from a strategic perspective; then, on the basis of a final overall evaluation, the Executive Board authorises publication.
  2. Scientific support from technical committees: All products are developed in an iterative process by the technical (militia) committees of the forums selected by the Executive Board or by a technical project group appointed by the committees. Key criteria for the selection of forum and project group members are technical expertise and a broad scientific basis for the body as a whole, which means that the social sciences are normally well represented. All members of committees and project groups are required to disclose their interests in writing, and these will be published on request.
  3. Products: As well as being scientifically correct, products have to meet a defined set of requirements. Particular weight is attached to general comprehensibility, scientific balance and transparency. Wherever possible, policymakers are also provided with relevant recommendations for action. Prescriptive recommendations for policymakers are, however, avoided, except in cases where a highly specific framework for action has already been defined by policymakers and a response is called for in the form of equally specific recommendations for action.

For SCNAT it is also important that, as an independent institution, it does not produce partisan expert reports, and all of its products, including those commissioned by third parties, are made publicly accessible. Likewise, SCNAT does not issue recommendations for popular votes, unless a proposal directly concerns the legitimate interests of the scientific landscape as a whole. Any contributions relating to proposals to be voted on are published no later than two months before the vote; thereafter SCNAT only responds to enquiries in the course of its usual media relations activities.

Case study: Comprehensive dialogue on biodiversity loss

Since the beginning of the 1990s, maintenance of the science-policy dialogue has been a priority area for SCNAT. At that time, it focused on the challenges of climate and global change and then also on the biodiversity issue. The present case study illustrates the dimensions assumed by a dialogue on such transgenerational challenges. Ultimately, scientific support for evidence-based policy calls for the continuous interplay of diverse activities and instruments, addressed to the entire political and societal stakeholder landscape.

In 1994, Switzerland ratified the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which called inter alia for the development of a national biodiversity strategy. SCNAT took up the societal challenge of globally declining biodiversity and has since provided continuous support for the relevant political and societal stakeholders through its Swiss Biodiversity Forum, using a wide variety of channels for communication and dialogue.

With its extremely broad approach, SCNAT supplies policymakers with the necessary scientific foundations (comprehensive reports and factsheets), also highlighting relevant interdependencies with other problems, identifying areas where political action is needed and formulating options, supporting opinion-forming public and non-public debates, advising administration and policymaking actors during the legislative process, providing information for high-level decision-makers, establishing contacts between policymakers, business and society, and promoting a basic understanding of the biodiversity issue among the population.

These efforts can be divided into three phases: (i) fundamental raising of awareness of the biodiversity issue among policymakers and society (2000s); (ii) active support for the process of developing a Swiss biodiversity strategy (2009–2012); (iii) advice and support for the process of shaping specific policies (Biodiversity Action Plan and planned measures/sectoral policies) (since 2012) and the integration of these into an overall Swiss sustainability policy (Agenda 2030) – in all cases, on the basis of scientific foundations. Notable products and activities from these various phases are:

Dialogue in support of sustainable development

As mentioned above, SCNAT is primarily concerned with long-term societal challenges. This long-term focus allows it to successfully establish and maintain stable networks both within the scientific community and across the science-policy interface. As a result, SCNAT is not only in a position to address medium- and long-term questions but can also respond in a timely manner to more immediate political concerns within these thematic areas.

Particularly prominent among the future thematic priorities of SCNAT with relevance to policy are topics of major importance for the transformation to a more sustainable society. Here, again, the emphasis is on creating and supporting (research) networks and operating national platforms for dialogue between science, policymakers and society. However, the highly interdependent nature of the sustainability goals to be achieved under Agenda 2030 calls for even greater inter- and transdisciplinary consortiums than in the past. Accordingly, initial priority themes were defined at a series of workshops involving more than 100 participants from academia, government and the private sector: “Food for people and planet”, “Sustainability and spatial development”, “Net-zero greenhouse gas emissions society”, “Economic and financial systems for well-being”, “Shared values, visions and pathways for sustainability” and “Synergies, trade-offs and common threads” (Wuelser et al. 2020).

SCNAT will continue to promote policy dialogue on these and other topics, as there is no alternative to the pursuit of sustainable development. It will also seek to ensure that Swiss ERI institutions increasingly adopt a joint approach to a policy dialogue which must be intensified, with each institution deploying its own particular strengths – in line with the collective responsibility to support evidence-based policy.

Jürg Pfister is Secretary General of SCNAT and Réne Schwarzenbach is President of the SCNAT Platform Science and Policy.


  • Messerli, P., Pohl, C. & Neu, U. (2015). Mit Wissenschaft die Politik erreichen. Swiss Academies Reports 10 (5)
  • Quevauviller P., Balabanis P., Fragakis C., Weydert M., Oliver M., Kaschl A., Arnold G., Kroll A., Galbiati L., Zaldivar J. M. & Bidoglio G. (2005). Science-policy integration needs in support of the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive: Environmental Science & Policy: 203–211
  • Wuelser G., Chesney M., Mayer H., Niggli U., Pohl C., Sahakian M., Stauffacher M., Zinsstag J., Edwards P. (2020). Priority Themes for Swiss Sustainability Research. Swiss Academies Reports 15 (5)
  • Wuelser, G., Pohl, C. & Hirsch-Hadorn, G. (2012). Structuring complexity for tailoring research contributions to sustainable development: a framework. Sustainability science 7(1): 81–93


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