Expert assessments can work if lessons are learned

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For the Oxford Martin Commission on Future Generations to be heard, it should learn from previous mistakes, argues Ehsan Masood.

Perhaps it's just me, but I find something satisfying in watching a group of experts pore over a problem and then try to come to a collective conclusion. I started my science-journalism career covering the meetings and reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the mid-1990s. I've tried it from the other side too — helping to organize assessments of biotechnology policy in developing countries and of the state of innovation in the Islamic world.

But expert assessments are dogged by problems, and I had begun to think that there was a growing reluctance to attempt them. That was until the University of Oxford, UK, announced in early September that they are taking another throw of the dice.

Ian Goldin, an expert in globalization and director of the university's Oxford Martin School, and Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, have put together a panel of 20 experts and handed them what may be the mother of all remits.

They have asked them to look into why issues such as tackling climate change or reducing trade barriers remain unresolved, and to make their recommendations to policy-makers by the middle of next year. The grandly named Oxford Martin Commission on Future Generations promises to differ from previous expert assessments because it will also interrogate how global issues are connected to each other.

The panel includes Brazil's former foreign-affairs minister, Luiz Lampreia; the chair of South Africa's planning commission, Trevor Manuel; UK Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees; and the economist, Nicholas Stern. Seeing a list of such eminent names, it is tempting to assume that the real work will be done by a talented but overworked secretariat. But Goldin promises that his panel members are not there to decorate the cover of the final report: they are there to generate ideas. In other words, to work.

“ 'Big tent' assessments seek consensus among natural foes, but they carry risks. ”

Goldin and Lamy have put a lot of thought into compiling their list. Alongside Lamy, for example, there is former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who was also the US representative on the WTO at the same time that Lamy represented Europe as commissioner for trade. The pair, free from the burdens of representing Europe and the United States in trade talks, should be able to draw on their experiences to guide their successors.

There is also Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director-general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland, who will no doubt inject some environmental caution should the free-traders get too excited.

So will the Oxford Martin Commission succeed where others have failed?

To do so, it will need to learn lessons from previous assessments.

The first of these is about the nature of its endeavour. 'Big tent' assessments seek consensus among natural foes, but in doing so, they carry risks.

Goldin will know this well, having been at the World Bank during much of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which started in 2002 and lasted for six years. An IPCC-style assessment for food with some 4,000 participants, it attempted to bridge the interests of industry with those of campaign groups, particularly over the role for genetic modification in agriculture. The biotechnology firms Monsanto and Syngenta walked out shortly before the launch of the final report.

The Oxford Martin group of 20 is a more manageable number of people, many of whom (although coming from different perspectives) are friends or know each other professionally. One might hope, then, that they will be able to resolve disagreements.

The second lesson is the importance of communicating using plain language. The final report of the mighty Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005, for instance, was almost impenetrable to those of us in the media, and also to policy-makers. Unusually, Goldin's expert panel features two journalists, Ariana Huffington of The Huffington Post and Lionel Barber of The Financial Times.

But I still see difficulties ahead: in particular, the tension between accessibility and providing usable knowledge. Goldin and Lamy have chosen hard problems, the solutions of which are best understood and applied by experts. Can we expect a final report rooted in interdisciplinarity, and aimed at general readers, to be taken seriously by these specialists?

Another problem is that of authority. In the heyday of global assessments, a group of experts could tell the rest of us what to think and how to behave and we would at least take note. That is an unfashionable approach today, yet nobody seems to have told the Oxford Commission.

It isn't too late. The Commission could webcast its meetings or create a rolling blog or wiki into which people can feed ideas and comment. The end result would be worth the effort, while reassuring many that this is not just an elite-level exercise.

The Oxford Commissioners must also avoid the trap of focusing exclusively on the final report. Many of the policy processes they want to fix have broken down because of a lack of trust. One thing that I've learned is that to involve your audience in the process of gathering knowledge is often as important as the eventual conclusion.


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Correspondence to Ehsan Masood.

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Masood, E. Expert assessments can work if lessons are learned. Nature 490, 145 (2012) doi:10.1038/490145a

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