Science and science-policy advice in post-normal times: chance and challenges

Dr. Carsten Neßhöver
Matthias Koller

Science in the spotlight of the corona crisis

Rarely has there been a time when scientists have been in the focus of politics and the public over a longer period of time than since the beginning of the Corona crisis – at least from a German perspective: no political measure that was not justified by (the latest) scientific findings, no talk show with at least one scientist, daily press conferences of the Robert Koch Institute (The German government’s central scientific institution in the field of biomedicine) with live radio and television. Broadcasts, detailed tables and figures with case numbers, infection risks and R-factors at the top of the list in print and online media shaped the picture. The Corona crisis is prototypical for the even more serious ecological-social crises such as Global Warming. It shines a spotlight on the necessity and chances of scientific policy advice as well as its challenges and the contours of a future policy advice needed in “post-normal times” become visible.

On the whole (and taking a German perspective here), science, even across disciplinary boundaries, has used the stage to provide broad and diverse advice to politicians and the public. Both the virologic and epidemiological uncertainties with regard to Sars-COV2 and, for example, the economic, social and cultural consequences were discussed in a differentiated manner. The public gained deeper insights into the functioning and working methods of the scientific community, and a recent survey by the Science Barometer shows that confidence in science increased, at least temporarily, among the population.

Yet, science has to admit (and it does so only partially) that it simply reaches its limits in complex crisis phenomena such as corona:

  • Virology and epidemiology have to work with often lacking or uncertain data available on (too) many aspects of SARS-CoV2,

  • the social sciences can hardly foresee the possible behaviour of humans in the measures necessary to control the virus,

  • economics reaches its limits with its classical means of analysis, also due to the complexity of the economic effects,

to name just a few of the restrictions relevant here. Such limitations are also evident in other crises.

Challenges and elements of post-normal policy advice

There are too many known and unknown uncertainties in today's complex crises - a challenge that science and scientific policy advice still fail to meet. As early as 1993, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz stated in their standard text on post-normal science that classical science falls short when problems are complex, facts uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent. Science must open up further in its social advisory function, not only between disciplines, but also to other knowledge carriers, e.g. in the direction of citizen science. Transdisciplinarity and openness and transparency must be at the centre.

In addition, further developments of post-normal times can be observed, which challenge science and its advisory role:

  • The progress of digitalization is leading to an explosion of knowledge, which on the one hand promotes further fragmentation, lack of clarity and specialization, and on the other hand brings in an increasing use of artificial intelligence for accessing and utilizing the stock of knowledge. This in turn raises new questions, e.g. with regard to transparency, accountability and freedom of values of AI-based knowledge production.

  • Systematic fake science and increasing skepticism about science undermine the credibility and acceptance of science and scientific policy advice.

  • The increasing diversity and fragmentation of the knowledge production landscape (universities and institutes, scientific councils and advisory bodies, think tanks, associations, etc.) and the scientific communication channels lead to a perceived polyphony and ambiguity of the advisory process. They can thus also undermine trust in science and scientific policy advice and weaken their impact.

As a consequence, scientific policy advice must therefore be readjusted: away from separately working councils and individual institutions and towards more integrative approaches that incorporate openness and transparency regarding uncertainties in processes and results. Important elements for this would be:

  • New, open formats of scientific advice that actively involve stakeholders in the process depending on the issue at hand and open up options for action for decision-makers (e.g. EKLIPSE mechanism)

  • Greater use of living labs and other approaches of transdisciplinary research, including the strengthening of scientifically supported citizen dialogues

  • a stronger screening of international assessment processes with regard to their relevance and use for the national context. (Example INTERNAS project)

Such concepts have already been developed and established in many contexts, now it is important to promote their methodological diversity and impact on a broad scale, because our problems remain complex, diverse and value-based and cannot be tackled with classical consulting alone.

Dr. Carsten Neßhöver

German Environment Agency
Dr. Carsten Neßhöver works as science-policy experts at the German Environment Agency. Geo-ecologist by training, he is an expert in science-policy...

Matthias Koller

German Environment Agency
Matthias Koller is head of the section for fundamental issues, sustainability strategies and scenarios, and resource conservation at the Federal...

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