by Jessica Weinkle
The other day in class I had the following a common exchange with a graduate student:
Student: We need more science in policymaking because policymakers are not making enough effort to protect the environment and public health.
Me: So, you want policymakers to make different choices then the ones they are making?
Student: Yes. They are not listening to the science. We have tons of evidence of public health problems and environmental degradation but apparently, we need more scientific research because policymakers are not protecting the public health or the environment.
Me: What you are after is political power: the ability to influence policymakers so their decisions represent your values. You have a political problem, a representation problem, not a scientific problem.
My student expresses a widely shared sentiment: there is something wrong with the interaction between science advice and policymakers based on the political outcomes that we observe.
A great many are frustrated with the current role of scientists in policymaking. Whether someone wants scientists to have more influence or less, there is resentment that policymaker decisions do not reflect widely shared values and concerns. There is decline in trust in policymakers and skepticism towards the legitimacy of the way democracy is being exercised (Pew, Gallup).
The frustration is no mere passing annoyance. It is a growing challenge to the state of political order: the institutions, processes, and people involved in determining who gets what, when and how.
The study of science advice to policy is fundamentally about maintaining accountability of policymakers to fulfill their responsibility to the governed. But it is also about maintaining integrity of the science- a valuable institution in a highly complex, technical society.
Policymaker responsibilities have two main parts. The first part is straightforward. The second part is hard work.
First, policymakers have to make decisions or rather, policies. Policymaking is in fact, part of the job title. Policymakers that are not working with other policymakers to negotiate and reach a compromise are not doing their job.
Second, these policies have to be aimed at resolving public problems and ideally, towards such esteemed values as human dignity or equality. These are vague concept for sure and sometimes harsh realities like pork barrel politics overshadow more virtuous goals. But the lack of focus on public interest is apparent when policymakers make decisions that advance personal interests, partisan positions, or most abhorrent, superiority of some identity groups over others.
Accountability of decision makers to the governed strengthens public trust in government and is a foundational aspect of democracy.
When accountability processes, like those of science advice, are challenged and become the topic of political debate it signals instability in the public’s willingness to be governed by the current regime. At stake is the legitimacy of the political order itself: institutional arrangements, the powers of individuals and groups, and who is included in the community.
Science- and expertise more generally- is an important way of maintaining policymaker accountability by creating a transparent rational for decisions. Policymakers can point to different types of knowledge widely accepted to have merit to justify their decisions.
However, science advice does not necessitate specific actions of any kind. Not just in a philosophical sense but also in a democratic one.
For example, just because you know your partner is cheating on you doesn’t mean you necessarily leave them. People sit with the uncomfortable knowledge of dishonest partners for all sorts of reasons economic, social, and political.
Likewise, despite extensive knowledge of a contagious and deadly pandemic or quickening sea level rise, there are social and economic concerns that make it impracticable to establish prolonged national ‘shut-downs’ or to systematically retreat urban centers from coasts. The knowledge is uncomfortable because making policy that reflects it requires a great many social value trade-offs, and people value these trade-offs differently.
A delicate balance
The legitimizing relationship between science and policymakers is undermined when the public finds decisions to neglect their values or perceives a lack of integrity in science advice.
If policymakers dismiss or denigrate well accepted expertise, science or otherwise, in favor of ideology or just plain arrogance they signal an unwillingness to be held accountable to the public.
If policymakers defer to their scientists for decision making because the politics are intractable, they too are signaling an unwillingness to be held accountable to the public.
Expert advisors obstruct accountability when they fail to acknowledge the limits of the scientific endeavor itself in favor stealth advocacy of their policy preferences. They risk creating a type of bait and switch, promising clarity and direction while delivering truthiness.
The science-policy interface is delicate and intrinsically political.
When policymakers request expert advice they signal to the public that they are doing their due diligence. They are working to better understand a problem and the options available for resolving the problem. Decisions are informed and likely to result in resolving grievances in a politically feasible way.
The practice of ‘good’ science advice promotes trust in policymaking. It is a transparent, independent and sound assessment of scientific information. It can clarify understandings of scientific questions or broaden the scope of policy options, but it always places responsibility for decision making with policymakers. It seeks to strengthen democratic processes- not usurp, obstruct, or delay them.
The study of science advice is political – it is about making policymakers accountable for societal outcomes and preventing decline of democratic governance.