110 – Science and policy

I recently read an interesting new book called “The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics”. The author, Roger Pielke Jr., identified four different roles that science can play in the policy process. He also highlighted some traps for scientists attempting to engage with policy.

The four roles are as follows.

1. Pure scientist. The pure scientist stays distant from the decision making process. He or she makes her scientific information available in a passive way, and is unconcerned with how (or even whether) the information is used by policy makers.

2. Science arbiter. The science arbiter does not make specific recommendations to policy makers, but does serve as a resource, providing answers to factual questions that the policy maker asks.

3. Issue advocate. The issue advocate does make specific recommendations, and attempts to make the case for one alternative over another.

4. Honest broker. The honest broker attempts to provide balanced information about the range of decision options facing the policy maker. The approach is to expand or clarify the choices available, while leaving the decision to policy makers based on their own preferences and values.

Pielke points out that there are difficulties to be confronted by scientists in adopting any one of these roles.

For example, a pure scientist who intends to focus only on the science may unwittingly act as a “stealth” issue advocate. Their science may be picked up and used in a very one-sided way in a political debate (for example, think of the climate change debate). Similarly, in attempting to be a science arbiter, it is easy to slip into the role of issue advocate, perhaps unintentionally.

Some scientists are willing to take sides overtly in politically contested debates, and use their status as scientists to promote one side. I would observe that this is not uncommon in environmental science – there seem to be a growing number of environmental scientists making impassioned pleas in the media. This role runs the risk of damaging the the special status of science as a source of independent expertise to the community, especially in complex debates where different scientific experts may adopt opposing advocacy positions.

The honest broker attempts to integrate scientific knowledge with stakeholder concerns, which is an extremely challenging task in many cases.

Pielke argues that, “All four roles are critically important and necessary in a functioning democracy. But scientists do have to choose.” Whether or not scientists are aware of it, whenever their research is relevant to a political issue, they will adopt one of the above four roles. Pielke shows that it is better for scientists to be aware of the issues around each role and to make a conscious choice.

Thinking about my own engagement with policy, I can see that at different times I have played each of the four roles, without hardly being aware that I was shifting between them.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pielke, R.A. Jr. (2007). The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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