“It Is Really Important for Experts to Know When They Are Helping and When They Are Making Things Worse”
Roger Pielke is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He holds degrees in mathematics, public policy and political science. His wide interdisciplinary background and his skills as a communicator have made him a rara avis for science. He comfortably crosses scientific fields and professional roles as a speaker, an expert advisor, an author, and a prolific scholar in various areas. He recently visited Copenhagen to speak at the Final conference of the COST Cross-Cutting Activity on Science Communication, where ALLEA participated as one of the COST Action partners. In this interview, he touches upon key dilemmas for scientists when sharing their expertise and advice and when defining their role in democracy, communications or climate change.
Politicians will benefit much more from experts when those experts have a sophisticated and realistic appreciation for how policy and politics take place.
Question: Based on your experience in science advice and your research, what do politicians need from science and scientists? Is it only knowledge and evidence or is it more?
Roger Pielke: Politicians need a range of things from science and scientists. They often need information or knowledge, and this can include scientific judgments on specific questions, like: How many people currently have COVID-19? Or it might include policy options, like: What might we do to keep the elderly safer in the pandemic? Two things that go beyond science are understanding and collaboration. Politicians will benefit much more from experts when those experts have a sophisticated and realistic appreciation for how policy and politics take place. As well, scientists need to use this understanding to be willing to engage and collaborate with politicians to support democratic governance.
Advisory bodies that have a clear mandate, well-understood terms of reference and ample experience perform very well.
Q.: In your opinion, what is a good example of an expert advice system? Why?
R.P.: In general, advisory bodies that have a clear mandate, well-understood terms of reference and ample experience perform very well. An example of such bodies are vaccine approval committees, they typically perform their work outside the public gaze and rely on relevant expertise to make recommendations about approval (or not) of proposed vaccines. These committees work so well that it is notable when they do not, such as when President Biden announced that COVID-19 boosters for certain age groups, but the relevant advisory committee had yet to meet. That resulted in some scrambling by both the Biden Administration and his advisors, illustrating the importance with which such committees are viewed.
Q.: You talk about ‘shadow advice’ as “formal or informal mechanisms of advice established outside of governmental science advisory processes to provide a counter or opposition body of legitimate, authoritative and credible guidance to policy makers.” Should we worry about this type of oppositional self-organised expert advice, or can it also benefit democracy?
R.P.: Shadow science advice has always been around (in fact, that’s what I’m offering in this interview!), but it took on a particular prominence during the pandemic. Around the world we have seen scientists and other experts self-organize to challenge both official advisory bodies as well as government policies. In democratic systems it is of course proper for people to self-organize and advocate for their preferred values and policies, that is democracy at its best. At the same time, experts have unique legitimacy and authority in society and, as we have seen, can delegitimize expertise and government, and damage democratic practices. It is really important for experts to know when they are helping and when they are making things worse – and if they don’t know the difference, maybe to slow down and figure that out.
Expert advisory systems work best when they reflect the fact that advice needs to be created, it does not emerge spontaneously from everyone “playing their own instrument.”
Q.: At the COST conference, a metaphor that left everyone rethinking their role in the science community was your advice on science communication. Science communication should work as an orchestra, you said, and make more music instead of noise. As a science communicator yourself, how do you “conduct yourself” to make music instead of noise?
R.P.: One thing I like about the orchestra metaphor is that it highlights the importance of diverse expertise (e.g., violins and percussion), coordination and leadership. Expert advisory systems work best when they reflect the fact that advice needs to be created, it does not emerge spontaneously from everyone “playing their own instrument.” There is both an art and a science to providing expert advice that empowers policy making, and in a way that supports democratic ideals. Science communicators should have some understanding of this art and science, if the goal is to improve the practice of policy and politics.
Q.: Back in 1994, you said in your dissertation: “Debate over ‘global warming’ has distracted scientists and policymakers alike from the requirements of effective decisionmaking”. What did you mean with this and how has this changed since then?
R.P.: I thought that was just sitting on a shelf somewhere! Yes, I have long argued that the debate (such as it is) over various elements of the science of climate change often distracts from the more important questions of what we might be doing to accelerate decarbonization and to make society less vulnerable to climate and climate change. Those issues require science, of course — e.g., science associated with zero-carbon energy technologies and that of disaster resilience. These topics require a different sort of science than typically is at the center of attention in climate discussions, which often focus on long-term projections of climate futures conditioned on various scenarios. We know that decarbonization is a global priority and better adaptation is needed. I’d argue we already knew that in 1994!
The climate science community has well-served the issue of climate change, but it is time to recognize that the knowledge that we need in 2022 is quite different than that needed in 1988 (when the IPCC was created) and institutions should evolve accordingly.
Q.: What should the climate science community set as a priority when providing advice or interacting with politics today and in the next decade?
R.P.: The first question to ask is of policy makers: What information is it that you need to make better decisions? In my experience policy makers do not need more physical science or climate modelling, they need policy options, including technological options. If carbon-free energy were cheap, easy to deploy and came with a broad social acceptability, the issue of decarbonization would be straightforward. The broad climate community should be focusing more attention on developing viable options that meet these criteria. Of course, many people are focused on these issues, and that is a good thing, but there is considerable room for greater urgency on these issues. The climate science community has well-served the issue of climate change, but it is time to recognize that the knowledge that we need in 2022 is quite different than that needed in 1988 (when the IPCC was created) and institutions should evolve accordingly.