The recent essay by Peter J. Richerson in SEF provides an answer to one of the most enduring questions in the study of politics: What are the roles of scientists in policy-making?  Richerson grounds his essay by the scholarship of Paul Sabatier and the Advocacy Coalition Framework, one of the most established and applied theoretical approaches in policy studies.  The essay’s argument is that all scientific disciplines involve certain value orientations.  Scientists do not necessarily concoct their data to serve political ends.  Instead, all sciences must simplify in some way the world’s complexity.  Such simplification results in information that simultaneously emphasizes and deemphasizes various aspects of the world and, thus, tends to support some value orientations and related political goals while possibly threatening others.  For scientists wanting to influence policy-making, they willingly or not gravitate towards people mobilized in one or more advocacy coalitions sympathetic to the information they supply and other scientists gravitate towards one or more rival advocacy coalitions.  The result is an argumentative arms race fueled partly by scientific research between rival coalitions that can last years to decades.

Underlying Richerson’s arguments, as well as much of the theoretical logic of the Advocacy Coalition Framework, is an important assumption that the policy issue under study is highly contentious.  Highly contentious policy-making occurs when people disagree about how government should respond (if at all) to the issue, perceive threats from the ideas of their opponents, and are unwilling to compromise.  In highly contentious policy-making, people mobilize into one or more competing advocacy coalitions.  Political one-upmanship ensues with ongoing policy debates based partly on various interpretations and selections of scientific and technical information.  In this situation, scientists become allies to one coalition and opponents to the other and their scientific information become political arrows in the coalitions’ quivers.

The imagery of scientific information as political arrows leads to two common misinterpretations of policy-making involving scientific information.  First, the apparent argumentation is frequently over differences in interpretations of the science or perceptions of the lack of science but the underlying sources of conflict are more likely differences in fundamental orientations that relate to values, identities, and interests.  This is one of the reasons why science so frequently extends instead of ends policy debates; that is, the debates are usually less about science and more about differences in these fundamental orientations. It is not that science is unimportant in policy-making.  Science can inform our values, identities, and interests and inform our policy-making processes but science cannot resolve political disputes over public policy. Second, scientists might want their information to be used constructively or in a “neutral” manner but, once the information is published, it is free to be used by one or both advocacy coalitions often beyond the scientists’ control.  This is the source of one of the most disempowering feelings for scientists; that is, their reputation and impact is often contingent upon how their information is used by others.

Thus far, the discussion assumes that policy-making is highly contentious.  However, other policy-making processes involve advocacy coalitions but with intermediate levels of contentiousness.  In these situations, advocacy coalitions are not attempting to outgun each other but rather work together in addressing the issue.   Cooperation among coalitions is more likely to occur when there is a trusted broker who is committed to helping overcome political impasses or when there exists amiable venues featuring various conflict mitigating procedures, such as consensus-based decision rules.   Additionally, motivation by competitive advocacy coalitions to cooperate often requires a hurting stalemate where both sides perceive the status quo as unacceptable and have exhausted all other strategies and venues for outmaneuvering each other.  When advocacy coalitions are cooperating, scientists and their information can play more of a “neutral” role because their information is being used for joint-problem solving and the co-production of knowledge rather than to outmaneuver a political opponent.

This commentary tolerates generalities in describing some stereotypical scenarios.  There are exceptions to these patterns.   Some scientists have the personality and skills or may generate the type of information that does not threaten any coalition and, thus, allows these scientists to play a “neutral” role even in highly contentious issues.  It is also case that in many contentious issues, scientific information is hardly used at all and policy-making is based instead on culture-based symbols, stories, and morals.  However, when science is used in policy-making, the point to remember is that scientific information is discipline-based and value laden, it may favor one or more coalitions and threaten others, and it may become politicized by coalition members.  As a result, the role of scientists in policy-making is largely context dependent.   This should not dissuade a scientist from getting involved but it does require caution.  Scientists should be cautious in publishing information that could be used politically and in knowing that once their information is public it may be politicized beyond their control for various political ends.

The difference between various levels of contentiousness and the different roles that scientists play is not to say that one role is necessarily better than another.  Democracies will always feature some level of contentiousness in policy-making on important issues.  Furthermore, at times, compromise is not the best strategy and highly contentious debates are necessary.   Recognizing the various roles of scientists and avoiding judgment of what role is better or worse for democracy, if the question is about the role of scientists in policy-making then look first to the level of political contentiousness.

Weible, C.M. (2008). Expert-based information and policy subsystems: A review and synthesis. Policy Studies Journal, 36(4): 615-635.

Weible, C.M., Sabatier, P.A., & Pattison, A. (2010). Harnessing Expert-based information for learning and the sustainable management of complex socio-ecological systems. Environmental Science and Policy, 13: 522-534.


Published On: March 4, 2016

Chris Weible

Chris Weible

Chris Weible is associate professor at School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. He is also co-editor for the Policy Studies Journal, teaches courses in environmental politics, policy processes, policy analysis, and research methods and design, and co-directs the Workshop on Policy Process Research (WOPPR).

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