Maybe it’s just me, but I find it somewhat satisfying to watch a group of experts look at a problem and then try to come to a collective conclusion. I began my science-journalism career in the mid-1990s, covering meetings and reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I have tried it the other way around – helping to organize assessments of the state of biotechnology policy in developing countries and innovation in the Islamic world.
But expert assessments are beset with problems, and I began 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 were taking another throw of the dice.
Ian Goldin, an expert on 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 created a panel of 20 experts and assigned them to determine what could be the value of all remittances. Mother.
He has asked them to look into why issues such as tackling climate change or reducing trade barriers remain unresolved, and to submit their recommendations to policymakers by the middle of next year. The lavishly named Oxford Martin Commission on Future Generation promises to detract from previous expert assessments as it will also inquire into how global issues are intertwined.
The panel includes former Brazilian Foreign Affairs Minister Luiz Lampreia; Chairman of the Planning Commission of South Africa, 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 aren’t there to decorate the cover of the final report: They’re there to generate ideas. In other words, to work.
Goldin and Lamy put a lot of thought into preparing their list. For example, along with Lamy, is former World Bank President Robert Zolic, who was also the US representative to the World Trade Organization at the same time as Lamy represented Europe as Commissioner for Trade. The pair, freed from the burden of representing Europe and the United States in trade negotiations, should be able to draw on their experiences to guide their successors.
There is also Julia Marten-Lefevre, director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland, who undoubtedly takes some environmental precautions free traders should be very excited about.
So will the Oxford Martin Commission succeed where others have failed?
To do this, it will need to learn lessons from previous assessments.
The first of these is about the nature of its effort. Assessments of the ‘Big Tent’ seek consensus among natural enemies, but in doing so, they run a risk.
Goldin would have known this very well, during the World Bank’s International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which began in 2002 and lasted six years. An IPCC-style assessment for food with some 4,000 participants, it attempted to link industry interests with campaign groups, particularly on the role of genetic modification in agriculture. Biotechnology firms Monsanto and Syngenta staged a walkout shortly before the launch of the final report.
The Oxford Martin Group of 20 is a number of more manageable people, many of whom (though coming from different perspectives) are friends or know each other professionally. Then, one can expect that they will be able to resolve the disagreement.
The second lesson is the importance of communicating using plain language. For example, the final report of the powerful Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005, was almost impenetrable to those of us in the media and even to policy-makers. Unusually, Goldin’s expert panel includes two journalists, Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post and Lionel Barber of The Financial Times.
But I still see the difficulties ahead: in particular, the tension between access and providing useful knowledge. Goldin and Lamy have chosen difficult problems whose solutions are best understood and implemented by experts. Can we expect a final report that is rooted in the interdisciplinary, and aimed at the general readership, to be taken seriously by these experts?
Another problem is that of power. In the heyday of global assessment, a group of experts can tell the rest of us what to think and how to behave and we’ll at least pay attention to it. This is not the fashion of today, yet it seems no one has told the Oxford Commission.
It’s not too late yet. The commission may webcast its meetings or create a rolling blog or wiki in which people can feed in ideas and comment. The end result will be well worth the effort, while assuring many that this is not just an elite level exercise.