Our understanding of scientific policy advice
Our understanding of high-quality scientific policy advice follows the „Leitlinien Politikberatung“ of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.
These emphasize correctly that scientific policy advice neither can nor should substitute political decisions and societal discourse. In fact, its main task consists of preparing, enabling and critically accompanying the latter. Against this background, the major problem of scientific consultancy is to apply the knowledge generated according to scientific criteria and interests to policy relevant questions in a form which enables conclusions and recommendations that are both scientifically reasonable and politically implementable. An assessment of the latter is only possible by a dialogue of scientific advisors with decision makers.
Scientific reasonability and comprehensibility of presentation of results
To safeguard scientific reasonability it is indispensible that research is done according to state-of-the-art methods and that relevant assumptions, uncertainties, knowledge gaps and normative judgments are disclosed and made explicit. This is, however, only a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the credibility of scientific policy advice. Additionally, strict neutrality with respect to particular interests (including that of the contracting authority) is indispensible. This implies that all investigations have to be open outcome procedures and includes the protection of personal rights as we all as a responsible handling of sensitive information.
Finally, a target-group related and comprehensible preparation of results is of vital importance. This as well contributes to a high credibility of scientific advice since it avoids the misimpression that scientific results represent some form of “secret knowledge”. Furthermore, a comprehensible presentation of findings is decisive to avoid misconceptions and false reactions in the political decision process.
The house of scientific advice
If one visualizes scientific advice as a house then the provision of sound policy recommendations is the ultimate aim and, thus, constitutes the roof of the house. Sound policy recommendations are substantive answers to (in most cases) highly complex questions, which enable stakeholders a rationale decision. The central load-bearing beam is represented by evidence-based empirical work. We believe that substantive answers to highly complex questions are only possible if they rest upon solid empirical findings. This in turn requires the use of adequate, state-of-the-art methodology. Furthermore, it implies the insight that the generation of proven knowledge is impossible in economic and social research and, thus, makes it indispensible to clearly specify all remaining uncertainties.
This central load-bearing beam is carried by the four pillars “transparency”, “credibility”, “plurality” and “autonomy” which are built on the fundament of “expertise”. Without substantiated scientific expertise the whole house is built on sand and doomed to failure. Scientific expertise does not only comprise knowledge of all relevant state-of-the-art theoretical models and empirical methods but also that of relevant institutions and stakeholders as well as that of prevailing legal norms.
The first pillar “transparency” most notably implies that the results of scientific investigations are disclosed and that researchers are open to discussions regarding their work. This requires that the chosen approach is described completely and contributes to the credibility of the advisory process by making results verifiable (at least for other researchers).
The second pillar “credibility” means that scientific expertise has to be implemented to the best of one’s knowledge to receive the best possible results. As mentioned above, transparency contributes to credibility. However, credibility also requires that researchers discuss their approach openly and self-critically, clarify potential weaknesses and uncertainties, present potential alternatives and disclose the hypotheses underlying their work. Furthermore, credibility implies that the object of investigation is not only considered from one single perspective. Instead, alternative views and approaches have to be considered. This also refers to the pillar “plurality”. Moreover, credibility is intimately related to “autonomy”. Recipients from outside the scientific community will perceive results as credible only if independence can be ascribed to the researchers. On the one hand, this clearly depends on the experiences and the reputation of involved individuals. On the other hand, it is also influenced by the degree the contracting authority intervenes into the investigation process.
“Plurality” means – as already mentioned above – that the object of investigation is considered from more than one perspective, that competing hypotheses are developed, and multi-disciplinary approaches are used for generating empirical evidence. This implies that a methodological reduction of horizon has to be avoided and precludes the implementation of methods as an end in itself. Methods have to be adapted to the objective of investigation and not vice versa. In this endeavor, the guideline should be “as simple as possible and as complex as necessary”. Naturally, all methods exhibit specific strengths and weaknesses. Provided that these strengths and weaknesses are made transparent and are incorporated into the interpretation of results, a mixture of methods constitutes the preferable approach.
The final pillar “autonomy” comprises the objectivity, strict neutrality towards particular interests and openness of results. This includes the courage to communicate uncomfortable conclusions and to criticize. Decision makers will only benefit from scientific advisory reports if the latter are not perceived to be done by courtesy. Criticism, however, has to be fair and constructive. Finally, autonomy is strongly connected with credibility and transparency.
The ISG Institute for Social Research is an independent is a privately owned, independent research institute with offices in Köln (headquarter) and Berlin. The institute goes back to the Otto-Blume-Institut für Sozialforschung und Gesellschaftspolitik e.V. which was founded in 1952.