EXPERTISEPolitics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society

By Zeynep Pamuk

Published 14 April 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of scientific advice to modern policymaking. But how can the use of expertise in politics be aligned with the needs and values of the public? The solution: a new model for the relationship between science and democracy.

This article draws on the author’s recently published book, Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society (Princeton University Press, 2021).

The COVID-19 pandemic has put scientific advisory bodies under the spotlight as rarely before. The question of how scientific advisers should communicate their guidance in the face of wavering trust in science and scientists has subsequently received much scholarly and public attention over the past two years. But while the focus on scientific advice is certainly important, there is a limit to how far the problems in the relationship between science and politics can be fixed at the advisory stage.

After all, advisers are constrained by the knowledge available to them. Their recommendations depend on earlier decisions about which scientific questions should be pursued and how. To improve the relationship between science and democracy and ensure more effective responses to issues such as pandemics and climate change, we must align the production of scientific knowledge itself with the needs and values of the public.

Politics and Expertise
In a recently published book, I argue that decisions made at earlier stages of the scientific process play a crucial role in shaping the public uptake of scientific advice, as well as determining the failures and limits of the use of science for policy. Drawing on examples from COVID-19, climate change, artificial intelligence, and environmental protection, I show that the scientific knowledge available often sets the terms of debate, frames political conflicts, determines the policies that will appear feasible and whose needs can be addressed.

The absence of the right kind of knowledge, in turn, makes it difficult to criticise policies and work toward alternative visions of the future. Scientific decisions about what knowledge to pursue are also decisions about which areas of uncertainty and ignorance we can live with, and whose problems we can safely ignore. Scientists, funding agencies and philanthropists, who have a say over which scientific questions should be pursued, thereby shape what counts as significant knowledge in society and what can be bracketed or left out altogether.