Science advice: start walking the talk

Gepubliceerd op
10 oktober 2016

I have spent last 29 and 30 september 2016 in a European Commission building in Brussels among a group of around 600 people interested in, as the title of the conference states, 'Science & Policy Making: towards a new Dialogue'. Check here for the conference website and #EUINGSA16 for the twitterfeed.

As an academic interested in science-policy-society interactions, my reason for joining the conference was to learn how practitioners in science advice discuss their activities and the challenges they face. Three things stood out during the conference:

  1. There was an abundant usage of concepts and terms from Science and Technology Studies (STS) and related fields like Science Policy, including the credibility/legitimacy/salience triage, the honest broker, coproduction, post normal science, and even notions of democratization of science and humility. Practitioners used these terms to frame their roles, responsibilities and practices and to deal with the complexity and non-linearity in scientific, environmental and societal dynamics.
  2. I was amazed by the multitude of stylized, well-organized and linear conceptions of processes of policy making (yes indeed, the traditional policy cycle continues to be evoked), of scientific and technological change, and of innovation and transition processes that featured in the talks. Presenters used powerpoint-generated flow charts with clearly separated boxes connected with arrows to explain to the audience how things work and relate.
  3. There was a clear focus in many talks, not just those in the specific panel allocated to this theme, on the role of skills in connecting science and policy. Mostly, these referred to open communication, empathy, and mutual respect, using terms like translation or boundary spanning.

Flowcharts, communication skills and STS concepts do not really mix well. Or actually, as the conference has demonstrated, they do. But the mix that emerges is problematic. Specifically, it creates the illusion that complexity can be managed, provided you have the right processes in place and that you populate these processes with the right people who have the right skills. This is a depoliticized way of framing of the relation between science and policy. One of the best illustrations of such depoliticization is the frequent mentioning of the 'gap metaphor to conceptualize the disconnections between science and policy. As I have argued before in this lecture, this metaphor is misleading. It fixates science and policy, imagines the lack of connection between them as a natural phenomenon, and promotes a technical solution: a bridge.

These depoliticized framings, strip concepts such as complexity, democratization and legitimacy of their critical meaning and transformative potential and effectively render them empty. In doing so, they invite back in the problematic assumptions of the linear model and the information deficit model. This was also clear during the conference: science and policy were frequently discussed as essentially different and disconnected, with knowledge users framed as in need of scientific knowledge, appropriately communicated by skilled boundary spanners. This is a problem.

The use of words matters. Metaphors and concepts hide as much as they illuminate and by mixing them, new meanings emerge. The science advice community has adopted potentially powerful and transformative concepts, but seemingly without fully reflecting on and taking on board their implications and without effectively letting go of the problematic assumptions of the linear and deficit understandings of science policy relations. In other words, it is talking the talk, but not necessarily walking the walk. However, it would be a mistake to think that this is just about getting the implementation right. Concepts and practices co-evolve and this means that it is equally important to find better ways to talk about practices of science-advice. In other words, what is needed in science advice is both better practices and better terms to reflect these practices: start talking the walk and start imaging and reflecting on what it takes to start walking the talk.