“The Honest Broker” and what scientists can learn from it (part 1)

Getting involved in policy is an important step for scientists. On this post (part 1), first shared on the #FEMSmicroBlog, a review of Roger A. Pielke Jr's book "The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics” highlights the roles scientists may take when engaging with policy.
“The Honest Broker” and what scientists can learn from it (part 1)

This post was written by Corrado Nai and Paul Cos and originally shared in the #TheCulturePlate section of the #FEMSmicroBlog, the blog from the Federation of European Microbiological Societies.

“The Honest Broker:
Making Sense of Science
in Policy and Politics”
by Roger A. Pielke, Jr (2007),
Cambridge University Press

"The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics” by Roger A. Pielke, Jr is an introduction and field guide for researchers who think: I want to contribute to policymaking; but how? The book is equally suitable to those (including policymakers) who feel: Why is there not more knowledge informing that policy decision? Both questions are not easy to answer. The language, the knowledge, the common ground for a dialogue between the two parties might not be there. Thankfully, there are roles, examples, and tools that researchers can follow to have an impact in the decision-making process. 

Research is so important that it just needs more funding. A new finding should reach the ears of policymakers, who need to act upon it. Some decision-makers might purposely turn away from evidences. Other might be overwhelmed by the complexity of science, the deluge of information, the lack of contacts.

What to do?

Four different roles for researchers

Any researcher and policymaker with a tad of integrity will agree that facts and reason are essential components in evidence-based policymaking, and many will argue that evidence-based policymaking is good policymaking. Given this general common ground, is it just a matter of finding each other then, communicating properly, and speaking a common language? Well, there is more to it. Much comes down to which, among four possible, roles a scientist plays (summarized in Table 1).

These roles are idealized, meaning that, in fact, scientists can take over a particular role in one instance, and a different role in another; scientists can somehow sit in-between roles; or they can, intentionally or unintentionally, disguise themselves in one role, while in fact assuming a different one. But these idealized roles are helpful nonetheless:

  1. The Pure Scientist has no interest in the decision-making process, only in the science. They might think, for example, that great science will eventually (hopefully) emerge into good societal outcomes. To get enmeshed into politics is none of their business.
  2. The Science Arbiter might be a bit more engaged in decision-making. When called upon, they might happily provide resources, but no advice.
  3. The Issue Advocate has a clear mind of what the science is telling policymakers. They are advising and reducing choices in the decision-making process.
  4. Finally, Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives expand or clarify the choices for decision-making in an unbiased way. Best outcomes are achieved with a diversity of views, experiences, and knowledge.
Diagram representing the four (idealized) roles scientists can assume in policy-making
Table 1: The four (idealized) roles scientists can assume in policy-making depend on their personal attitudes, that is, their view of science, and their view of democracy (adapted from Pielke Jr, 2007).

All roles are honourable and dignified. As Roger A. Pielke Jr, author of the book “The Honest Broker” (Cambridge University Press, 2007) says: “Effective, democratic decision-making depends upon a healthy diversity of roles played by scientists in society […]; it is important that the scientific community fulfil each of the four roles.”

But scientists need to make a conscious, active choice on which role to play, and be aware of the consequences. Pure Scientists and Science Arbiters might, unconsciously or deceivingly, slip into “Stealth Issue Advocacy”, debating policy options via scientific arguments, without disclosing their value commitments. Scientists should not “hide [policy-arguments] behind science”.

The book “The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics” is about understanding the choices scientists who wish to get involved in policymaking have, and how they can better help decision-makers achieve their goals (“Science for Policy”) while, at the same time, help science thrive (“Policy for Science”).

Science in democracy

Both scientists’ view of science and their view on democracy affect which one of the four idealized role they might assume in policymaking (Table 1). When experts consider democracy as an “interest group pluralism” (James Madison, 1787), then they are better off serving society by aligning themselves with their favourite faction or interest group, or with none at all (Issue Advocacy, Pure Science). But if experts consider democracy as a “competitive system” (Elmer Eric Schattschneider, 1975), with the public allowed to choose between alternatives, then their role is to clarify those policy alternatives and their implications (Science Arbitrage, Honest Brokerage).

Some researchers view the role of science in society as a linear one. Basic research will inevitably lead to applications and societal impact, they assume. Or they might believe that scientific consensus leads to political consensus, and thus inevitably to policy implementation. And while both interpretations have merit (for example, to make sure basic research is free from political influences; or to find a normative answer to a scientific fact, in the rare cases when political values are shared and uncertainty in the outcome is low), they have limitations, too. For example, thinking that if a fact is established scientifically, political outcome should result, leads easily to the instrumentalization of science at the service of different values.

And most importantly, reality – and arguably, science too – is not linear: There is the need of complex feedbacks between scientists and decision-makers. The “stakeholder model” might reflect reality better than the “linear model.”

In part two, we will cover the topics of values, uncertainty, and suggest some ways in which scientists can participate to the process. Below are some ways we encourage researchers to get involved:

Top image by FEMS-Eliza-Wolfson-CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0

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