What scientists want, people know

Scientists as policy advisers : Distinguish knowledge from wishes

Scientific policy advice is always a topic of discussion. What is it good for - and is it really helpful? We clearly come to the conclusion: Scientists cannot be more than an honest broker of mostly different insights. If everyone were to limit themselves to this role, the influence of scientific policy advice would be better than it is at present.

The attempt by scientists to make themselves heard by the public through steep theses and unreliable empirical findings - outside of the media world, which naturally loves excitement - has almost no influence on decision-makers. For example, think of economists who have been unsuccessfully preaching the abolition of the euro for years. Or to biologists and medical professionals who are constantly discovering new food risks that have so far been insignificant in everyday life.

Glyphosate carcinogenic? Some call it so, others so

How is the conflict about the question of whether the weed killer "glyphosate" carcinogenic to be assessed? The World Health Organization believes so; the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment rates the product as harmless.

Scientists as advisors to politics are only legitimized by their special knowledge. But even the legitimation through knowledge is limited, namely if the knowledge asked for and presented by him is uncertain - which is almost always the case with all difficult problems. Think of the controversial two-degree target for global warming. Added to this is the problem of value judgments on which political goals and decisions are inevitably based. How strong should the progression be, for example, i.e. the higher taxation of high earners?

Political advisors want to be clear where there is no "right"

Scientists are not legitimized to put their value judgments above those of others. However, they tend to formulate their advice in such a way that the politician has only one option that seems reasonable. This is usually based on an interest in personal political influence, coupled with the conviction of the correctness of one's own knowledge. But the claim of many scientific policy advisers to make decisions technocratically, i.e. by means of supposedly secured knowledge, is undemocratic insofar as it disregards the political legitimacy of the decision-makers. This is the case, for example, with all questions relating to social policy. There is, for example, no scientifically “correct” pension level.

Science organizations lobby

When the representatives of the major scientific organizations publicly promote the continuation of research funding, this is of course lobbying. This is without a doubt legitimate - but by no means science-based advice. Just think of the current attempts to make more money for manned space travel with the help of imaginative dreams of the future.

But even where the situation is not such an obvious one, but rather the question of whether and under what conditions the energy transition is feasible, impartial advice and advocacy for a particular interest cannot always be clearly distinguished from one another. Just think of the many wind turbines that are being placed in the landscape or "plans" to build energy collectors in the sun-drenched Sahara. Transparency, which distinguishes knowledge from wishes, is the order of the day.

There is more transparency in the EU and the USA

And transparency helps all the more the better the public and politics have learned to recognize the boundaries between scientific advice and advocacy. This is appropriate when scientists, like lobbyists, are campaigning for lower taxes or more investments.

If you take a closer look, you will be surprised to find that the process of policy advice in the European Union is much more transparent than in Germany, as there are more disclosure regulations in Brussels. For many political systems, including that of the USA, rule-based transparency is not a problem, but it is occasionally for German politics.

This has to do with the traditions of the administrative culture, ultimately with a certain understanding of the state that privileges the government. However, this can no longer be a justification for a lack of transparency, and a scientist cannot be more than an honest broker (as the American Roger Pielke calls the role). He should therefore present the available scientific evidence in a balanced manner. If all scientists were to limit themselves to this role, we would claim that the influence of scientific policy advice would be better than it is today.

Gert G. Wagner is a board member of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). Peter Weingart is a research professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Both have jointly published the book “Scientific Policy Advice in Practice” (Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2015; 252 pages, 29.90 euros).

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