06 August 2009

From Science Arbiter to Issue Advocate

One of the arguments that I develop in The Honest Broker is that there are strong incentives for a scientific organization to slip into advocacy, either explicitly or in a "stealth" manner (i.e., by arguing political preferences through science). Dave Huitema (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam) and and Esther Turnhout (Wageningen University) have just published a very interesting paper in Environmental Politics on the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP). Huitema and Turnhout employ the framework in THB to argue that
On a general level, MNP employed ‘Science Arbiter’ discourses, steering clear of political considerations but trying to meet policymakers’ demands for assessment and information. However, in the case study, discourse moved in the direction of the ‘issue advocate’, with science used to steer policy in a certain direction.
Huitema and Turnhout argue (and I agree) that some degree of advocacy is unavoidable in scientific organizations, even if they strive to serve as arbiters or brokers. The larger concern that they express is the degree to which such advocacy is hidden from view or hidden behind science:
. . . we feel that it is not so much the signs of Issue Advocacy we have observed in the MNP that warrant further reflection as such, but the ways in which Issue Advocacy is obscured and hidden from view. The MNP staff and specific policy actors involved make up a closed community in which important but largely obscure and unchecked decisions are made, for example, about the operationalisation of visions and goals and about what measures should be adopted in view of fixed or other policy goals. Issue Advocacy is part and parcel of every boundary organisation that is trying to perform either the Broker or the Science Arbiter role in practice. It is important to recognise this and find ways of shedding light on these often hidden and implicit practices and opening them up to larger audiences.
This is a nice article that adds both empirical data on science in a political process, but also adds considerable additional depth and nuance to THB framework.