Center for Interdisziplinary Research

History of Scientific Policy Advice

Date: May 23 - 24, 2007

Organizer: Mitchell Ash (Wien)

Recent debate on scientific policy advice has focused on the difficulty of establishing accepted standards of quality in this highly complicated field of activity. In a joint workshop members of the ZiF Research Group "Science in the Context of Application" and the Interdisciplinary Working Group "Scientific Policy Advice in Democracies" of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities met to consider the issue in historical perspective. The focus was on ways in which quality standards for scientific policy advice have changed over time, in the context of deep alterations on the relations of science and politics as well as changing epistemic criteria of scientific 'objectivity'. After Martin Carrier and Peter Weingart (both Bielefeld) briefly summarized the programmes of the two working groups, Mitchell Ash presented introductory remarks on the issues of the workshop. As he emphasized, both science and politics-or policy-have changed over time; it therefore seems logical to expect that such changes would have an impact on criteria for the epistemic validity and political usefulness of scientific knowledge. Needed therefore are two histories, one of politics (or science-based policy)-that is, a history of the state or of administrative reason-and also a history of what counts as knowledge, seen in interaction with one another. Viewed from this historical perspective, the current crisis of scientific policy advice appears to result from two linked factors:
(1) the self-construction of politics as a form of science-based problem-solving since the late nineteenth century, bringing with it increasing public demands on policy actors and law makers for science-based problem solutions; and
(2) the self-construction of scientific activity itself as rational (often meaning: practical) problem-solving during the same period.
Brief presentations followed by invited guest speakers on the basis of previously communicated papers or statements, on which members of the ZiF group then commented. In "Scientific expertise, public policy and the legal experience", Tal Golan (San Diego) pointed out that application of expert advice to legal matters was the first attempt to apply scientific advice in public affairs, and addressed the problems that arose with the adversarial approach, in which each side called its own expert witnesses. In Golan's view, pressure to assure quality control of expert testimony reshaped the nature of recognized expertise; traditional expertise based on rich personal experience gave way to standardized expertise based on uniformed measurable criteria and justified before large audiences. In "Speaking Precision to Power", Theodore Porter (Los Angeles) noted the profound shift marked by the recognition of science as a profession, which occurred in different countries at different times. Scientists who had presented themselves as high priests of reason with claims to broad perspectives became experts with specialized, thus limited knowledge claims, justified and judged according to ideals of impersonal objectivity and precision. The result was the compact of science and the modern state that has been in place until recently: The state provides resources to scientific research on condition that scientists speak to their fields and not more generally. Ironically, this change has worked against efforts to democratize knowledge claims, because specialized expertise could not be evaluated by everyone equally. This raises a provocative question: Is the idea of expertise itself at odds with spirit of open inquiry?
The remaining papers presented case studies focusing on developments since 1945. In "Criteria for Successful Scientific Policy Advice: Educational Policy in the Federal Republic of Germany", Wilfried Rudloff (Kassel) argued that every policy field creates its own expert culture, and that this blurs boundaries between science and expertise. He presented four models of interaction developed between 1950s and 1970s, each with different criteria for successful policy advice. Common to all approaches was that epistemic criteria were less important than institutional priorities. In "Making Substances Dangerous", Heiko Stoff (Braunschweig) focused on policy relating to substances that do not occur freely in nature, but are created, synthesized, or isolated in laboratory settings. This raises complex issues of biopolitics and risk: policy and controls are seen to be needed, although it is not possible to say yes or no to risk questions with certainty in advance. Stoff emphasized the role of the media in creating or publicizing risk consciousness. In "Environmental Quality and the Quality of Policy Advice: Interdisciplinary Expertise and the Clean Water Act", Holly VandeWall (Notre Dame) analyzed the relations of experts, executive agencies and legislative bodies. As she showed, the act was a breakthrough because Congress consulted with experts in advance of drafting legislation, but the relevant policy agencies and the engineering disciplines associated with each policy domain. Specifically, the solution adopted ignored thermal, radioactive, or inorganic contaminants and thus shifted perspective away from military and industrial sources of pollution.
The workshop raised fundamental issues, in particular the relation between empirical and normative criteria for the epistemic and social or political robustness of knowledge claims. The case studies suggest that such criteria are themselves dependent on historical context. Nonetheless, the question of which organisational models can produce the most effective science-based policy advice in particular circumstances remains relevant.



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