Science and Politics
Providing Policy Advice is an Academic Duty
Interview with Peter Weingart
Sociologist Peter Weingart on politicians' longing to get things straight, on reports disappearing in drawers, and on academics having a go at being politicians.
Kosmos: Professor Weingart, you are heading a research team that is to work out guidelines for policy consultancy. Will you, as a scholar, be telling politicians how cooperation is supposed to function in future?
Weingart: It wouldn't make sense to require everything to be done the way science likes to have it. Politics has a logic of its own which it will not be persuaded to discard. Our guidelines will have to address both sides, politics and science.
Kosmos: What are you going to advise the two sides to do?
Weingart: Politicians and scholars have to be better attuned to one another. Whatever knowledge the researchers may provide, they have to consider that this knowledge is always interpreted in a political context before it is implemented in political decision-making. The politicians, on the other hand, have to respect the provisional nature of knowledge that may be uncertain and questionable, without its being "bad knowledge" on this account. Often, there is not only the one single truth that they can ultimately base their decision on. Politicians have to learn to handle uncertainty.
Kosmos: With complex topics such as reform of the social welfare or health systems, there is bound to be insecurity ...
Weingart: And not only there. It is generally assumed that natural scientists can provide accurate answers, whereas the social sciences can't. But take electrosmog, for example. How endangered do you think you are by the radiation emitted by the mobile phone you are using? Or is there a correlation between low-level radiation from nuclear power stations and child leukaemia? You will get lots of different answers to these questions.
Kosmos: What has to be done in concrete terms so that consultancy, whether it be uncertain or not, can support political action?
Weingart: We must be agreed on what happens to the consultancy results. This issue has only been settled in one single case in Germany: the advisory opinion of the German Council of Economic Experts, the "Fünf Wirtschaftsweisen". The government can adopt a different view or consult rival experts, but it is obliged to make a statement to parliament. This principle ought to become standard practice. For example, it would prevent expertises from disappearing in drawers.
Kosmos: Is rival consultancy a problem?
Weingart: Politicians like to maintain control of the final outcome. So it's obvious to keep a variety of options open in order to choose the most suitable result in the end. Bioethics and the establishment of the German National Ethics Council by Gerhard Schröder are an example of this. He appointed this committee in addition to the already existing Study Commission of the Federal Parliament, which he felt to be too dominated by the Greens. It was of no avail to him. Both committees arrived at similar results. The Ethics Council recommended a ban on therapeutic cloning and proved to be an independent committee of people who would have neither the Federal Chancellor nor anyone else tell them what to think.
Kosmos: In the last election campaign for the German Federal Parliament, we witnessed the defeat of a scientist who chose to enter politics. Financial expert and former Constitutional Court Judge Paul Kirchhof had sought to translate his scientific insights into action instead of advising politicians.
Weingart: Yes, he had ventured forth into politics, and in next to no time, he was worn out as a candidate for the office of Minister of Finance. Now he has become a professor again, complaining bitterly of how badly he was treated.
Kosmos: Is this typical of academic naïvety towards politics?
Weingart: Kirchhof is certainly not naïve. But I believe he was thinking of a model of political consultancy that simply doesn't work that way, with the scientist holding a host of objective truths on one side and the ignorant politician on the other asking for truths that he can then turn into decisions. Kirchhof 's case demonstrates that the relationship between the two sides is in fact far more complicated.
Kosmos: What are the rules the two sides have to observe to achieve fair and productive cooperation?
Weingart: One important rule is that political consultancy ought to be public and transparent. Great Britain has set us an example by learning a lot from its mistakes in dealing with BSE. Initially, politics and science kept their knowledge about the scale of the crisis and the risks it was posing for people secret. This resulted in a severe credibility crisis, not only in relation to politics but also, and above all, to science. Since then, informing the public has become one of the main tasks of the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government. In 2001, when foot-and-mouth disease was spreading, David King, who currently holds this office, appeared on television and regularly informed the public about the government's countermeasures.
Kosmos: The government has a scientific advisor in the USA, too, the chemist George Atkinson. Just like David King, he is accused of no longer being an independent scientist but letting himself be exploited for political purposes.
Weingart: I believe that it is impossible for anyone in such a privileged position and with direct access to the head of government to stay out of politics. King attempts to protect himself from this by claiming that he can only organise the scientific consultancy, it is up to the Prime Minister to make the decisions. But he is also drawn into political debate. If he speaks out in favour of nuclear power, his own colleagues will scold him. If he says that climate change is more dangerous than international terrorism, Tony Blair will make him fall into line because he could be straining relations with the American government.
Kosmos: Is the German model better, without a scientific advisor, but with a many-voiced, partly dissonant chorus of experts instead?
Weingart: The muddle on the German scene does have its advantages. Each scientist can make a statement, and, provided that he gains a hearing, contribute to the general discourse out of which an opinion is then formed.
Kosmos: Can you understand that politicians are sometimes seized by a longing to clarify how things stand nevertheless?
Weingart: Again and again, attempts are made to tidy up the muddle and give the whole thing a steeper hierarchy, so that politicians are given "definitive" advice rather than a string of different recommendations. The debate over the National Academy of Sciences is an expression of this longing to standardise scientific opinion. But attempts of this kind have a hard time of it in our federal higher education and research system. Incidentally, in the United States, where a central contact really does exist in the person of the Science Advisor, there are far more different advisory committees, think tanks and individual scientists stating their opinions than there are here.
Kosmos: What can a scientific advisor achieve?
Weingart: He can give science a voice and gain a hearing in the "higher echelons". There are politicians who believe that they can manage without experts. This notion is absurd. They could do with a scientific advisor advising them on how, and by whom, one should be advised.
Kosmos: Nevertheless, the American and the British model cannot be transferred one-to-one to Germany. Neither of these countries has a research minister, while Chief Scientific Advisor David King has staff of two hundred. In Germany, he would hardly be given such a set-up and status.
Weingart: Correct. This is why there is something hypothetical about the notion of a German scientific advisor à la David King. So in my opinion, the more important question is how the status of science could be enhanced in the Cabinet. It is not only in Germany that this department ranks fairly low down in the pecking order. Traditionally, a minister of finance or defence has more clout in our democracies.
Kosmos: Who should decide when an expert really is an expert? Is the scientist's self-declaration sufficient?
Weingart: A judgement on who is an expert will always be disputable. There is usually more than one distinguished expert in any case. It would make sense for the professional associations of academics to maintain lists showing who the distinguished experts on a given topic are. Politicians could draw on this. At the moment, things are totally unstructured: people just ask each other who might be suitable.
Kosmos: How do independence and economic interests agree with one another? Should scientists disclose their supplementary income as politicians have to?
Weingart: As a scientist acting in a civil service capacity, you have to do this in any case. Much consultancy is provided on an honorary basis or for a minimum of expense allowances, for example in scientific advisory councils of the ministries. There are more lucrative royalties for special expert opinions. Really big money is seldom earned in consultancy activities.
Kosmos: Then what is it that makes consultancy attractive? Is it the political limelight, some of which might fall on the scientist?
Weingart: Of course there are researchers who get a kick out of the attention that politics or the media give them. In principle, this makes them susceptible to being exploited for political purposes. Others will be more resistant. I believe that it would be a real incentive if good consultancy were to be regarded as part of an academic's reputation. Why not say that policy advice is a duty that goes without saying? Those who do it well and independently will gain in reputation.
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