How Scholarship and Science Can Provide Advice to the Political Sphere

Georg Schütte | State Secretary of Education and Science, Germany

How Scholarship and Science Can Provide Advice to the Political Sphere

In modern high-income societies of the global north, we currently observe profound changes in the interaction among the scientific, the political and the social spheres. Expectations towards the science system have changed. They call for new modes to justify and legitimize scientific knowledge. This in turn alters to what extent and how science systems can provide knowledge and advice to the political sphere and to society at large.

The utilitarian challenge

Increasingly, politicians, business leaders, or interest groups confront science systems with the expectation to be useful and to prove their usefulness. This is not new. Already in 1939 Abraham Flexner had to argue in the United States for the “Usefulness of useless knowledge” and thereby for the support of curiosity-driven basic research. Moreover, it does not come as a surprise. For centuries, science had brought about new technologies that led to or contributed to increasing levels of wealth and welfare in these societies. What is new, however, is the expectation that science has to provide solutions instantaneously. The time span from problem definition to the delivery of solutions is shrinking. Digitization will put even more pressure on this process as the production of knowledge, its dissemination and absorption by the respective communities will happen almost simultaneously.

The complexity challenge

At the same time, the complexity of the modern world has increased tremendously. While the world population continues to rise, natural resources become scarce. Food security, clean water, the provision of health services and adequate education opportunities, the adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, to mention just a few, have become so-called “global challenges”. The United Nations responded to these challenges by formulating the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the “UN Agenda 2030”. While single academic disciplines can provide advice on how to address specific SDG-related questions, no single discipline can address the complex interplay of the various SDGs as a whole. There are conflicting ends as well as conflicting means. Therefore, answers cannot be easy and often require compromises.

The participatory challenge

In addition, science systems cannot develop solutions to these global challenges alone. Moreover, against the backdrop of rapid technological development and digitization some people are afraid of lagging behind and view science and scholarship as part of the problem. Thus, scholars and scientists have to collaborate and interact with those affected by the specific global changes. Therefore, those fields of science that aim at contributing applicable solutions have become – and need to be – partially participatory. Partially participatory means that they do not necessarily need to include those who are affected in the research process. Rather, it means that their perspectives, needs or fears are respected in the overall process of generating (applicable) knowledge and problem solutions. This has not been self-evident. Rather, it runs counter to decades and centuries of scientific expertise delivered ex cathedra. It is a learning process, which often juxtaposes scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge and calls for new forms of mediation amongst these knowledge orders.

The communication challenge

Scientific knowledge is characterized by its universal nature. Within the science community, there is a shared understanding that there are universal standards of scientific practice. These standards lead to scientific knowledge that is robust, useful, adaptable to new situations, and open to many who can make use of it. At the same time, however, scientific knowledge is historical, transient. The latter makes it difficult for scientists to communicate easy answers at a time of increasing complexity. There is no universal truth that can be grasped by a single scientific discipline or scholarly expertise. Rather there tend to be insights and solutions that hold true for a specific situation at a specific time and for a specific time span. At the same time, the digital revolution has altered the way people in modern societies communicate. In online-based media of direct people-to-people communication, modes of discourse characterized by emotional exchanges and audio-visual modes of communication challenge the standard practice of scientific discourse, i.e. the rational exchange of ideas. These new modes of communication open up opportunities for political and societal actors who claim to provide easy and compelling answers. Populist notions of simplification challenge the scientific notion of complexity.

The deliberation challenge

As a result, scholars and scientists need to adapt the way they work and the way they communicate. Scientists and science organizations need to defend and stand up for their right and ability to self-organize their science system. In liberal, democratic societies, this right is very often constitutionally guaranteed or historically accepted. This freedom to organize itself comes along with the freedom to set out a research agenda, which is driven by inner-scientific reasoning and interests. At the same time, this freedom of research comes along with the responsibility of science systems to contribute to the societal good and to provide answers to pressing problems. This type of research needs to be inclusive. It needs to reach out to and include various groups of stakeholders. In addition, it needs to engage in deliberation. The answer to growing skepticism towards scientific and scholarly reasoning cannot be retreat and exclusion. Rather, scholars and scientists need to explore and to engage in new forms of debate and dialogue. At a time in which trust in public institutions including scholarship and science is eroding, these attempts at debate and deliberations might help to regain acknowledgement and trust. An ideal realm to explore these new forms of interaction is the agenda-setting process for large research agendas which will have a significant impact on society at large.

What does this mean for science advice to politics? In the light of the challenges sketched above, scientific advisors, be they individuals, groups of scientists and scholars, or scientific organizations like, e.g., academies of science, might consider the following recommendations:

Be aware of different logics

In liberal democracies, politicians represent their electorate and aim to respond to the needs of the people. They are part of a network of allegiances, are under public scrutiny and eventually strive for the power to shape and steer public action. Scholars and scientists strive for new knowledge. Some of it is useful for immediate or medium-term action. Some of their insights point to the need for long-term changes of public action. As publicly funded research, research agendas also have to respond to public needs and must be developed together with different stakeholders. The quality of scientific and scholarly work, however, primarily has to live up to the standards of the respective academic field. It cannot and should not be contested by a majority vote of laypersons. Thus, the logics of the political and the scientific sphere differ fundamentally. Whereas scientific and scholarly knowledge has to withstand the contestation of peers, political reasoning has to withhold public debate. In this debate, politicians and various audiences (or the public at large) express and reconcile short-term political interests and long-term convictions based on norms and values. In turn it is the task of scientist and scholars to develop an evidence-base, to present the facts and to rationalize the character of these debates.

Be as inclusive as possible

This does not mean that the scientific and scholarly sphere has to isolate itself. The challenges to our common physical environment and to the social fabric of many societies call for the best knowledge and profound efforts of the academic world. This effort needs to be embedded in society. Science needs to take into account the interests, perspectives and knowledge of different groups within society. For this reason, this part of the general scientific agenda calls for public engagement. Scientists and scholars have to include these knowledge realms and public interests in their reasoning. As a former German Minister of the Environment once remarked: Science and research do not have to restrict themselves to public demand. However, it would be helpful if researchers considered public demand when setting up their research agendas. In doing so they need to explore new modes of public participation in scientific agenda setting. This procedural change might lead to a qualitative change of research results. Many academic disciplines, for example, may address the challenges of adaptation to and mitigation of the effects of climate change. In addition, they may do so from many different angles. Bringing together the knowledge from various natural and social science perspectives might ease the uptake of this advice in the political realm.

Be humble

Science and scholarship is the endless attempt to question existing knowledge and build new knowledge. Thus, scientific and scholarly knowledge is transient. Scientific advice to politics has to take into account this transient and contingent nature. There is no absolute “truth” to be delivered by a single scientific discipline or scholarly expertise. Rather, scientists and scholars have to be self-reflexive. They have to convey and communicate the limitations of their findings, the uncertainties that are due to the limitations of the perspective they can show.

Be understandable

Despite the need to be self-reflexive, scientific advice needs to be as understandable as possible. At the same time, it has to be as complex as necessary. This is not an easy task. There might be inner-scientific reasoning, which might be of interest to scientists and scholars involved. However, the degree of relevance to a political or general public may be low. As one government science advisor once remarked, it might be interesting for the scientific community involved to know that some of the research was basic, and some was applied. For the larger public it sufficed to say that sound research was the basis of the findings.

Be trustworthy

Things move at the speed of trust. Therefore, the basic requirement of scientific advice is trust. Given the challenges mentioned above and the proposals made so far, it seems to be crucial to respect the different logics of the scientific and scholarly sphere on the one hand and the political sphere on the other. Scientific advice can offer options for action. For complex challenges, be it to our natural environment, our social fabric, or to both, there is usually more than one answer. This does not mean, for example, that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should not recommend a 2-degree temperature rise threshold. However, the way to reach the objective to stay within this corridor requires public debate and political reasoning. This might take longer than it seems appropriate from the scientific point of view. Would it help if science moralized its recommendations to underpin the sense of urgency? Given the many attempts to emotionalize public debates, it seems doubtful whether the voice of scholarship and science can make itself heard that way.

Be persistent

Given the complexity of the challenges we face in our world, the task of scientific and scholarly advice to politics remains to be an endeavor that constantly requires critical reflection by all parties involved. Nevertheless, it is worth trying, again and again, in order to maintain a sense of reason at times of emotional debate, and a commitment to persistence in order to address the fundamental changes ahead of us. Especially in times of fake news and manipulated communication, it is important that science and scholarship contribute to putting public discourse on a rational basis, to making the facts be heard and to enable a change of perspective that is based on evidence and sound research. By constantly applying critical reason, they can help to disclose the all-to-obvious populist simplifications of scientific challenges.