The 2017 AAAS Conference – “Serving Society through Science Policy” – Highlights and Key Messages

This year’s conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) took place in Boston, MA, 16-20 February, with the theme: “Serving Society through Science Policy.” The full program and other information are available at this link.

The sessions that I attended illustrated the numerous dimensions of current research and discussion on the interface(s) between science, information, communication, management, policy formation, and decision making, and the visibility that the AAAS wishes to give to the role of science at this time in world affairs. The 14 sessions were:

Communication and Public Programs

Environment and Ecology

Public Policy

Some highlights and key messages from the sessions are:

Understanding the science-policy interface(s)

  • Scientists have a responsibility to society; they must move good ideas forward to legislators.
  • An “evidence brokerage function” works at the interplay between science, policy, and society.
  • Policy making is messy and is not represented well by the existing models of the policy cycle.
  • A key principle is that evidence informs policy, it does not make policy.
  • The expectations of both the science advisors and the receivers (requesters) must be considered.
  • Decision makers and politicians need timely advice, often scientific, and solutions.
  • Numerous enablers and barriers to the science and technology policy engagement are recognized.
  • One concern is the huge quantity of information and the need for a system, a science advice mechanism, to make sense of the relevant scientific information for policymakers.
  • Producing assessment reports on issues of importance (e.g., environment, health) to policy makers is a tough process, a demand driven activity, and to be effective, they should be integrated assessments and not just scientifically-based assessments.


  • Both personal relationships and effective communication are crucial in the science-policy process.
  • Relevant science should be visible, be well communicated, and tell a story, such as “science and technology matters for our well-being.”

Engagement with public (i.e., society) – needs

  • The continued need for NGOs to be involved in government workshops that discuss policies.
  • The use of social media in the engagement process – “words matter.”
  • The crucial role of citizen science in policy formation.

Science policy

  • The European Union is setting a new direction regarding science policy guidelines that will help generate trust amongst the receivers of science advice. Their chief problem is “the decline of acceptance of experts.”

One session was of particular interest to EIUI researchers: “Global environmental assessments and the bridge to environmental policy.” It harkened back to the origin of the EIUI program, where we were investigating the use and influence of global marine environmental reports produced for the United Nations. The session had three very insightful and information packed talks. The moderator, Jack Kaye of NASA, introduced the session by stating that “environmental assessments have a major role when scientific communities come together” around a particular topic. Consider the recent reports – the World Ocean Assessment, the global biodiversity report, and the USA national climate assessment. He stated that the American Government “enables these scientific reports as part of the underpinning of policy to address pressing issues.”

Paul Newman of NASA told the ozone story that started in the 1970s when CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) were found to be affecting the ozone layer, a global crisis. This led to many meetings and assessment reports, the immediate establishment of the Montreal Protocol and CFC regulations, and later amendments to the Protocol. This activity has taken place over a 30+ year period; the process is still continuing and is supported by regular assessment reports. CFC production and emissions are not completely controlled globally but sufficient progress has been made to predict that the Antarctic ozone hole will recover by 2070.

Katherine Mach of Stanford University, California, told the IPCC Climate Assessment story. She pointed out that the technical assessments must be comprehensive, well-reviewed, have had consensus approval from governments, and be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive. The whole IPCC process has many lessons for understanding, managing, and reducing the risks of a major environmental perturbation.

Finally in this session, Robert Corell of the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, Florida, talked about “the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) and its Implications for Environmental Policy.” This report was requested by policy makers in the Arctic nations, members of the Arctic Council. Its key findings “were negotiated,” involving hundreds of scientists and much discussion and compromise. It was stressed that the impact assessment itself is not an event, as producing each one is a continuing process and “comes out when it is ready”! It is a deliberation with analysis, and clearly an iterative process. Important conclusions are that more assessments are needed at the regional level; long term monitoring and process studies with modelling of the environment are a key need; the Arctic is a global ecosystem with non-linear processes occurring that control change, and producing surprises; boundary organizations have a vital role in the assessment process; and the assessment produces many emerging ideas for research. The ACIA process continues with emphasis on research on the permafrost, the resilience of various ecosystems, identifying adaptation actions for a changing Arctic, and periodic reports for the Arctic Council and respective governments.

Readers are encouraged to look up the AAAS program and website and to follow the discussions on the science policy interface that will undoubtedly continue unabated in the new political climate. In particular, see the various articles on “Path of evidence – Why turning data into policy is harder than it sounds” published in Science, 355(6325) (2017, February 10).



The many speakers at the sessions are thanked for their extensive knowledge and insights, as summarized above. Any errors in interpretation are mine alone. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Dalhousie University supported attendance at the conference.



Holt, R. (2017, February 10). Editorial. Act for science. Science, 355(6325), 551. doi: 10.1126/science.aam9177

MacDonald, B. H., Soomai, S. S., De Santo, E. M., & Wells, P. G. (Eds.). (2016). Science, information, and policy interface for effective coastal and ocean management. Boca Raton, FL.: CRC Press.

Malakoff, D. (2017, February 10). A matter of fact. Science, 355(6325), 562-563. doi: 10.1126/science.355.6325.562

Wells, P. G. (2003). State of the marine environment (SOME) reports – a need to evaluate their role in marine environmental protection and conservation. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 46, 1219-1223.


Author: Peter G. Wells, AAAS Fellow


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