CEPS: The Challenges of Science Policy and Science Advice in the Later 2020s

by | Feb 11, 2024

(February 7, 2024 – CEPS invitational event, online)

Speaker:

  • Sir Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy, and Social Innovation, University College London

During the conference, Sir Geoff Mulgan talked about his book ‘When Science Meets Power’ which is not so surprisingly about the relationship of science to power, but also the slightly different issues of anti-science, dangerous science and undemocratic science. The proportion of the “science element” is on the rise with climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence and so on. Thirty-forty years ago, the place of science in government was marginal, related to nuclear power and a few other things. “Now it’s pretty much everything.”

The challenge for politicians these days is what they should be doing if not following science.  Mulgan quoted Peter Gluckman, former chief science adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, explaining that “a host of problems now require decisions that are simultaneously scientific and political”. On one level, citizens have a remarkable trust and confidence in science, but it can become complicated around issues like climate change or vaccines. In his book, Mulgan describes the “science-politics paradox” which is based on the concept – backed by a survey from twenty-eight countries – that scientists are basically trusted, but politicians are not. “So how can the untrusted govern the trusted?”

We have extreme examples of anti-science, like former President of the USA, Donald Trump. Interestingly, a recent trend in the USA shows that republican voters’ confidence in science is going up. “So, science has become parallel to culture wars.” But anti-science users can shed light on some issues, e.g. former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci’s testimony before the congress about biosafety level 4 labs – most of which are in big cities where the public is largely unaware of their danger – made scientists think about engaging in a dialogue about the ethics and norms of that.

For Mulgan, another symptom of the problem can be shown by the Prime Minister of the UK, Rishi Sunak’s interview with Elon Musk about artificial intelligence, the “legitimate political power almost humiliating itself” around a crucial technology. Mulgan mentioned quantum science too which could be of extraordinary use, but it could be damaging or disrupting as well, because it’s a deeply powerful but uncertain technology.

Mulgan touched upon the history of the relationship between science and power, concentrating on the instrumental use of science, engineering in the service of states. A more complicated story started from the seventeenth century. Jean Bodin’s idea, the absolute sovereignty of politics clashed with the scientific society of London saying “don’t believe anyone” meaning that scepticism was at the core of science, and it had to be self-autonomous.

Sometimes science helped states to win wars, sometimes it was used to achieve glory, but in the twentieth century, it has started generating risks. That inevitably created the new era of “handling science”. Mulgan used the story of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel about the master who becomes dependent on the servant through the years to show the growing imbalance between politics and science.

According to Mulgan, there are actually three distinct logics to explain the world: science, politics and bureaucracy. The first one is a neutral, objective and sceptical point of view, the second is focused on action and empathy, but it can turn to be manipulative, while the third is rational, based on rules and order. These logics usually interact with mutual misunderstanding, but they are able to cooperate, especially in the case of risks.

The core of Mulgan’s argument is that we need a new hybrid combination of the sovereignty of science and power. A “scientization” of politics and a “politicization” of science, to reinvent both. The traditional model was: “scientists advise, politicians decide”. A new hybrid decision-making system – with more systematic capabilities to guide decisions and scientists being held to account for their decisions – might be controversial but work better.

There is also a warning for the future in the UK, where only the minority thinks that R&D benefits “people like them”. Mulgan assumes that a two-way conversation about priorities and choices could help this situation. In Denmark, they tried some experiments, but none of them were quite working in reaching enough people. There are some new examples, like the one of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority in the UK which was deliberately set up to be public facing. It has roughly worked, but for now, there is no other like that in the field of artificial intelligence or basically anything else.

Mulgan mentioned Ibsen’s play ‘An Enemy of the People’ which is somewhat portrayed as “science speaking truth to power”. It is presented in the simple way of “good science, bad politics” but it is of course much more complicated, and there’s a deeper issue about science which has powerful tools for analysis, but not for synthesis. Mulgan used to work on different kinds of knowledge that the government needs to make decisions and realized that there is a gap in the synthesis of method and training which reflects a misunderstanding of science. So, scientific skills for civil servants and politicians could be useful too.

Looking back at the different models of power, autonomous science and totally sovereign politics, Mulgran concluded that we should move to an explicit shared sovereignty of science and politics with new institutions, processes and capabilities. The TIAL project of Institutional Architecture Lab is working exactly on that.

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