Policy advice yes – but how?

On the occasion of the "Vienna Theses on science-based advice" recently put up for discussion by academies of science, Armin Grunwald reflects on the relationship between science and politics - and pleads for a "thinking in alternatives" cultivated in TA.
Porträt Armin GrunwaldS. Göttisheim / KIT

Armin Grunwald | March 29, 2023

Many institutions and actors are now involved in providing scientific advice to politics and society. Among these, the academies of sciences and humanities play a prominent role, as they are supposed to bundle the voice of science and draw conclusions that are relevant for society and politics. In Germany, these are above all the National Academy Leopoldina, which repeatedly issued striking statements and demands during the Corona pandemic, and the German Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech).

From the scientific claim to truth...

This has not been the case for a long time, unlike in the UK, for example, with the Royal Society. In Germany, the academies of science have traditionally been sceptical of policy advice from an academic distance and have seen themselves as guardians of pure science. It is only since the turn of the century that they have increasingly taken on scientific policy and social advice as part of their remit, now also in prominent positions, sometimes using the term technology assessment (TA).

Admittedly, policy advice provided by scientific academies has traditionally shown considerable differences from TA. As learned societies, they tend to be alien to the participatory and inclusive ethos of TA. It is perhaps exaggerated, but not wrong, to say that academies work in the mode of "science knows best" (Roger F. Pielke). Their self-image as a scientific elite corresponds to policy advice according to the motto "truth speaks to power", with science as the guardian of truth. Accordingly, an expertocratic understanding of policy advice (Habermas) suggests itself: the scientific elite decides what is the case and what should be done politically, for example in the energy transition, in combating pandemics or in dealing with gene editing. This approach corresponds to linguistic forms of recommending or demanding political measures, even to the point of claiming a lack of alternatives. The "thinking in alternatives" cultivated in TA is as alien to this traditional self-image of the academies as participatory elements. 

As a result, edgy memoranda, position papers, guidelines and statements are produced time and again, often with considerable resonance in society. Admittedly, this regularly leads to controversial discussions in the media, in public and in politics, e.g. several times during the Corona pandemic. On the one hand, people like to check whether politicians follow the recommendations of the scientific authorities - if they do not, politics and politicians are regularly met with scorn or even contempt. On the other hand, in such situations there is also concern that the mandate of science is being overstretched in the direction of an expertocracy, and occasionally the suspicion is expressed that behind the claimed claim to truth there are quite tangible self-interests.

Recently, the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina and the Austrian Academy of Sciences published the "Vienna Theses", a discussion paper on their understanding of "science-based advice to politics and society". On the one hand, these theses are remarkable compared to the traditional understanding of policy advice, but on the other hand they also leave questions open and make clear the differences to TA.

... to the identification of decision alternatives...

The introduction with thesis 1 is a bang compared to the expertocratic tendencies. Instead of presenting science as the guardian of truth or as a guide for shaping the future of society, it is modestly assigned the role of "honest broker" (Pielke). It is clearly stated that political questions cannot be decided by facts and figures alone, and that science should therefore point out decision-making alternatives and promote thinking in terms of options.

This is followed by theses that would hardly be formulated differently in TA. Science should inform, not legitimise (thesis 2). The framing of the problems and tasks of scientific policy advice needs to be questioned. It is the task of science to propose alternative framings if necessary (thesis 3). The academies stress the importance of interdisciplinarity and demand that it be more than a mere juxtaposition of disciplinary cultures (thesis 4). In thesis 5, they move away from consensus orientation and call for the disclosure of dissent, especially on issues of uncertainty and controversy. The demand for transparency of the knowledge process and comprehensibility of the results (thesis 6) would presumably also be shared in TA, as would the appreciation of science communication (thesis 7).

Then, however, a significant difference becomes apparent. Thesis 8 is entitled "Science academies know who really has expertise". This is justified by the fact that they are the "brightest minds" and have access to the best knowledge. Therefore, they are in the best position to judge who the "authorities" are and who should sit on advisory bodies. This self-confidence goes hand in hand with a claim to independence, in order to counter "party-political considerations and media influence" with "scientific excellence".

There it is again, the self-image of a scientific elite that knows "who really has the expertise". That expertise can also be found outside the academies, even outside the sciences, that expertise is multifaceted and not exhausted in scientific excellence, that it might therefore be advisable to provide for participatory elements at certain points in consultations, all this is not an issue. Here TA is positioned differently, more modestly, but also more self-critically and more openly towards society.

Another critical point is the claimed independence. Science is conducted in scientific independence, yes, of course. But individual scientists, including academy members, have their own scientific or institutional interests. This can be seen time and again in statements by scientific academies, for example when it is feared that excellent research in the field of biotechnology and medicine will be hampered by ethical issues. It is legitimate for scientists to defend their own interests - it becomes difficult when these interests are no longer questioned. Unfortunately, there is not a single sentence about this in the Vienna Theses.

In a charitable reading, this theme could be read into Thesis 9, which is about self-critical science. But there is something else meant, as the reference to scientific research shows. Its task is primarily the empirical investigation of developments in the scientific system. Critical reflection would rather be the task of ethics. This is not mentioned, nor is TA.

… to a more open understanding of the relationship between science and politics

Despite these critical points, the Vienna Theses document important steps on the way to a more open understanding of the relationship between science and politics and to a more reflective position compared to the expertocratic traditions, especially in the direction of thinking in alternatives. The former deep divide between scientific policy advice by academies on the one hand and technology assessment on the other is being bridged.