There has been an important political debate over the past decade about the role of experts in policymaking. But how are these trends likely to develop in the future? Based on a new edited volume, Vigjilenca Abazi, Johan Adriaensen and Thomas christiansen presented four distinct scenarios regarding the future role of expertise in policymaking in the EU.
The Covid-19 pandemic has once again brought the role of experts in policymaking to the fore. Instead of a general consensus on the importance of science-based decisions during a pandemic, we have witnessed persistent challenges to scientific knowledge, including from elected officials. In this era of disruptive politics and global transformation, understanding the role of expertise and its future is a major challenge for academics and practitioners.
In one new edited volume, we have assembled contributions that take a closer look at why and how expertise is challenged in EU policymaking and on global issues of international trade and climate change. In doing so, we explored four distinct scenarios regarding the future role of expertise in policy making.
The first scenario is that recent developments and current problems can be seen as a temporary phenomenon that can be expected to correct itself. In this light, the role of expertise in policy making, and its current contestation, is subject to a pendulum swing, most of the time going beyond an ideal state of equilibrium and rarely being in equilibrium.
Even though expertise became highly contested in the 2010s, policymakers and the public, when faced with the consequences of their disregard for expertise and scientific facts, will revert to their previous reliance on expertise. According to this logic, as the implications of decisions such as Brexit or the effects of the climate crisis become more apparent, the merit of the experts and their value to the political process will be justified.
However, this “self-correcting” scenario rests on an assumption – arguably naïve – that those who have challenged the expertise will acquiesce and recognize their error in judgment. Instead, past experience suggests that it’s more likely that they’ll double down, hijack, or change the discussion, rather than going slow overnight.
A second scenario is that of (progressive) reform. Such reforms have been proposed and implemented in the scientific, administrative and political community. In the scientific community, debates are taking place on the importance of scientific communication, the use of meta-studies and the efforts to more transparent data and research. Within the political and administrative community, reforms have been undertaken to ensure that expert groups are more balanced, expertise acquisition procedures are made more transparent, and the design of public consultations aims to avoid bias.
Institutional reforms must be followed by more drastic revisions to the role of (social) media in disseminating “fake news” and the need for stricter regulation in this regard. These reforms can range from fact-checking practices to the need for proper scientific reporting, but also to opportunities to introduce more stringent regulations on the fight against disinformation, foreign interference and hate speech on social networks.
A radical approach
A third scenario calls for a more radical conceptualization of expertise in policy making. The starting point for these claims is the close relationship between expertise and power. The challenge of expertise is therefore considered to be part of the political struggle for power and is part of a functioning democracy. The debate on the challenge of expertise cannot be studied independently of the political power structures from which it arises and which it seeks to (re) create.
According to this reasoning, the suggestions put forward in the second scenario are too superficial and doomed to failure because they do not address the larger problem – structural. The reestablishment of the authority of expertise cannot be achieved without a corresponding political development which would help to “democratize” the creation of scientific expertise.
In this view, experts should be part of the public arena and champion their cause, rather than becoming the only politically acceptable opinion. The inclusion of society at large in the processes of knowledge creation and dissemination should be part of the academic profession, rather than creating boundaries in the access and production of knowledge. In line with this third approach, it is not a fine-tuning of research practices but a fundamental change to make the classroom a place of redistribution of epistemic richness.
The pessimistic scenario
Each of these scenarios assumes that there are ways to reverse the recent expert appraisal challenge. There is, however, a different, more pessimistic scenario in which these trends continue, or even accelerate, in the future. The experiences of debates on responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have already illustrated this possibility.
As the past has shown, human history, and indeed European politics, does not follow a particular scenario towards progress and reason. The developments of the late 2010s echoed what had been observed in the 1920s: the rise of populism, the growing polarization of politics, the shrinking of the political center and the marginalization of science and expertise. in the development of public policies. The subsequent developments were horrific: the rise of fascism, the world war and the Holocaust.
A broader historical reference could be that of the Enlightenment – the era which established scientific method, technical expertise and political reason in the mainstream of European public life. By embracing science in the advancement of public goods, the Renaissance ended the Middle Ages in which the scientific achievements of the ancient world had fallen into disuse.
It may be an extreme analogy, but perhaps a sustained and increasingly accelerated expert challenge, and the rise of a post-factual world in which this trend is embedded, not only constitutes a threat to liberal democracy, but could even herald the end of the enlightenment? After all, the immediate reaction of former European Council President Donald Tusk to the British vote for Brexit was to see it as “the beginning of the end of western civilization“.
All these scenarios, utopian or dystopian as they are, are long-term visions and therefore go beyond the horizon of current developments. For now, decision-makers, scientists and citizens of the European Union will have to adapt to the reality of a system in which scientific expertise remains both essential and contested in its contribution to the development of public policies.
The resulting increased transparency and accountability required of managers, judges and scientists can help democratize policy-making in the process. However, such a normative gain comes at a price: the tension between the institutional reliance on evidence-based policymaking and the populist denial of scientific expertise can only create uncertainties, delays, policy reversals and generally conditions. more suboptimal for policy making.
For more information, see the accompanying edited volume of the authors, The challenge of expertise in the European Union (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)
Note: this article gives the point of view of the authors and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: European Council