Science & Policy making: Towards a new dialogue

DANDELION project TOP takeaways from

The conference ‘Science & Policy making: Towards a new dialogue, co-organised by the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) and staged by the EC (DG RTD) in Brussels 29-30 September 2016, attracted a truly international community of scientific policy advisors along policy makers and civil society representatives.

The agenda brought up important and salient issues in the face of contemporary challenges faced by societies and political administrations, such as the availability (or not) of relevant evidence (supply side), the willingness and the capacity of policy makers (demand side) to use it in designing and implementing better and more sustainable legislation or other policies, or the trade-off between timely advice and high-quality advice, and also the scarcity of skilful ‘brokers’ on the side of research, of policy making , and also of the civil society and the media. These are some of the key enablers/constraints at the Science-Policy-Society interface and have been discussed in a series of plenary and parallel sessions.

Although none of the above topics are new, the fact that the agenda has gained visibility at the highest possible level of European politics, is definitely a positive development. Yet, it takes much more in order to turn declarations and claims for evidence-informed policy into commitment and sustainable practice:

First, there is a need to “bring” political decision makers into the consultation room and “keep them there”, through awareness-raising and sensitisation about the modalities, potential and limitations, of scientific advice. As usually the case is, the selection bias at the conference has been in favour of academics. On top of that, there is a sense of a persistent asymmetry between “hot” politics, and “cold” science, where the former has the upper hand whereas the latter follows, or is less important.

Second, even among the experienced policy makers there is more often than not a widespread, unrealistic if not naïve, perception that research and science should provide a quick fix (e.g. more data) or ready “solutions” (as the expectations from the mission-driven “applied” research currently are) upon call. According to this view, policy makers identify the needs, and researchers, willingly, fill in the gaps. The bulk of problems still resides with public administration and with the will of political programming to tackle the ‘hot potatoes’, instead of instrumentalising research results, or outsourcing responsibility to science and research for providing unequivocal knowledge about contentious and controversial issues, such as migration, social inequalities, conflict, or security.

Third, it still seems necessary for policy makers to learn not to conflate data, information, evidence, and actionable knowledge: These are artefacts with very different legal, political and epistemic pedigrees, and are not always suitable or effective when it comes to push forward political decisions, particularly in controversial policy fields, such as those of migration and refugees, of counterterrorism, or of counter-extremism and -radicalisation. Data, or Big data collections, as the current hype goes, do not suffice in order to navigate in complex, complicated, and ambiguous public policy fields.

Fourth, and most importantly, policy makers need substantially better awareness and sensitivity about research processes and results, so that they can resist simplistic and unrealistic expectations of “definitive fixes” and “high-tech solutions” for the series of the comprehensive societal challenges Europe currently faces. From the shifting position of Europe in the world, and the current fragile dynamics between nationalist anti-EU trends in member state politics, over the need to act collectively in a concerted way in order to counter radicalisation and extremism, tackle the refugee challenge and productively integrate migrants, reverse inequalities and poverty, and foster social justice, up to unlocking innovation in public services, it all calls for strengthening the ties between European and national policy making with the plural knowledge coming from the whole array of scientific disciplines.

In this respect, the absence of an explicit SSH (Socio-economic sciences and humanities) input or perspective from most of the panels of the conference, surprisingly even from the discussions tackling traditional social science fields of study, did not come without some disappointment. SSH disciplines with their reflexive capacity to expose societal controversies, but also different methodological underpinnings for diverging scientific analyses, have the capacity to deliver key insights to policy makers about macro-patterns, micro-mechanisms, dynamics and trends. Plurality of knowledge from SSH is the core pre-condition for the design and implementation of responsive, responsible and sustainable policies. Yet, it always takes (at least) two to tango: If scientific advice mechanisms are to gain traction in practice, and not merely remain at the declaration stage, contributions from science to policymaking need to become inclusive of both STEM and SSH in the future.

 

Dr. Georgios Kolliarakis, Goethe Universitaet Frankfurt

(Member of DANDELION consortium)

More information about the Conference including the programme, webstreaming and presentations HERE