Analysis| From expertise to collective experimentation?

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What is the nature of the links between science and policy while implementing a more sustainable development? How to conceptualise an expertise devoted to action?

Environmental policies have an ambivalent relationship with science. There is a wariness of the overvaluation of technical knowledge which, according to Descartes, would render humanity “masters and possessors of nature”; a criticism that we find among the inspirers of the ecological movement, such as Lewis Mumford or Jacques Ellul. Conversely, some profess a strong confidence in a science that could eventually be put to the service of the rational and sustainable management of ecosystems and the planet (see Quénet, APFL). This confidence is de facto expressed in the proliferation of interfaces between science and policy that we analyse in the first part of this text.

The organization of a relaxed and fruitful relationship between science and policies however requires a shift away from this ambivalence and the coherent organization of the contribution of science to political action. However, in doing so one cannot escape the classic questions about science/policy relationships.

John Dewey1, among other authors, underlined the issue of the search for certainty and its possibilities and the confrontation between conceptual approaches and practical knowledge. “Certainty is a slumber that intelligence must never know”, wrote Patrick Savidan in his preface to Dewey’s aforementioned book. Past controversies regarding the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have provided opportunities to remind ourselves that, illusory or not, the search for certainty cannot in any way hinder public action in the field of climate, ecosystem health or the sustainability of development in general. Science is called upon to enlighten, to accompany action and to evaluate its results. But the search for certainty cannot be a prerequisite for the implementation of a more sustainable development. Action has to be taken in a complex and uncertain world, on the basis of scientific processes that are undergoing perpetual change. From this perspective, the positions of John Dewey chime with those of Max Weber, for whom, according to Raymond Aron : “Modern science is in essence evolving... It tends towards an infinitely distant goal and is continually renewing the questions put to nature.” (Les étapes de la pensée sociologique, Gallimard – 1967.) Based on this approach, the precautionary principle was formulated, which is now enshrined in important texts of international and European law, and in the Environmental Charter backed by the French constitution.

In Essays on the Theory of Science, Max Weber, unlike Emile Durkheim, expressed the fundamental irreducibility of human and social sciences to natural sciences. “Standards of political action are within and not outside it,” wrote his translator, Julien Freund, who also wrote the introduction. Freund considered that “political science (...) should not (...) make people believe that it might finally be possible to pursue policies that are innocent, pure and strictly compliant with ethical values.” In other words, science can inform policy but according to Weber, the relationship between science and politics is governed by the opposition between the “ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility” Max Weber. Politics as a vocation. Plon, 1965.; politics has its own stimuli and determinations. Our text wants to shed Shedding light on the recurrent debates on the reconciliation of natural sciences with human and social sciences within the science/policy interface and the difficulty of addressing the political issues in those arenas. This last issue is discussed in the second part of the text.

Science-policy interfaces, a historic role in setting the agenda of environmental issues

In terms of environmental issues, there are numerous, well-established and multifaceted opportunities for researchers and decision-makers to network and mutually influence each other, which occur in local, national or international arenas (see Figure Interfaces). In the international field, however, multilateral processes are increasingly mobilizing more formal models of institutions, with sectoral achievements that remain difficult to generalize. These so-called “science-policy interfaces” are expected to deliver knowledge syntheses that are authoritative in their respective fields, on which to base actions that we hope to be efficient, consensual and legitimate. (See Le Prestre and Taravella, APFL2009)

A| Defining the science-policy interface institutions and their roles

There are a wide variety of organizations according to the subject matter and institutional histories. Nevertheless, we can refer to a generic definition proposed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2009 (UNEP/IPBES/2/INF/1):

“... science-policy interfaces can be defined as institutions that aim to improve the identification, formulation, implementation and evaluation of policy to render governance more effective by:

  • defining and providing opportunities for processes which encompass interrelations between science and policy in a range of domains;

  • assigning roles and responsibilities to scientists, policy-makers and other relevant stake- and knowledge-holders within these processes;

  • and guiding and coordinating their interactions”.

This definition emphasizes the desire for a constructive debate between scientists, decision makers and stakeholders. The collective structured work must enable, in particular, the production of knowledge syntheses on various issues, expressed in a relatively accessible and balanced language, and adapted if necessary to diplomatic constraints inherent in multilateral processes. Regarding the functions of these interfaces, the UNEP definition above emphasizes their role in supporting environmental governance, ranging from the identification of new avenues for action through to the assessment of public policies that have already been implemented.

In practice, however, the mobilization of knowledge has mainly been used to put environmental issues on the agenda, by warning about environmental degradation and/or by supporting its inclusion on the agenda. In France for example, the National Museum of Natural History and its local branches – local natural history museums and local natural history societies – have played an important historical role in raising awareness on the destruction of natural environments. However, scientific support may also serve to legitimize leaders involved in environmental issues, who traditionally – despite some progress – are still often contested by other actors. Thus, since its creation in 1971, the French Ministry of the Environment had to operate within governments that were uninterested or even hostile towards the environment. Devoid of human and financial resources, with only a very limited social and political base, this Ministry was constantly subjected to controversial questions about the reality and scale of environmental problems, as well as the relevance of the proposed solutions. The Ministry has sought to build its legitimacy on an alliance with those in the scientific community who have an interest in the issue of the environment and the protection of nature. These trends have been observed elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

In 1992 in Mexico, at a time when the Rio Earth Summit enshrined the concept of sustainable development, the Mexican Ministry of the Environment (SEMARNAT) created the National Institute of Ecology (Instituto Nacional de Ecología – INE) to coordinate and carry out science and technology research projects with academic and research institutions, public and private, Mexican and foreign, in the areas of climate change, environmental conservation and restoration of the ecological balance. The INE must provide technical and scientific support to SEMARNAT for the formulation, implementation and evaluation of the national policy on environmental protection. More recently, the work of the Climate Change INE (INECC) has been crucial to the development of the Mexican contribution (INDC) to the Paris Agreement on Climate. Similarly, since 1985 the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) has been producing “satellite” economic accounting for the country, integrating environmental externalities. Unfortunately, the corresponding results are more often found on the shelves of libraries rather than on the desks of decision-makers.

Although rarely openly discussed or fully assimilated, this strategic dimension of knowledge is fundamental (Le Prestre and Taravella, 2009; Treyer et al., 2012.), especially when considering implementation and all the antagonisms expressed within.

Following the work of Cash et al. (2003), the conventional approach has been to define three characteristics of science-policy interfaces that could help science and technology to support sustainability: salience, credibility and legitimacy. For these authors, salience refers to the relevance of the assessments produced in terms of meeting the needs of the decision-makers and the ease with which these evaluations can be seized. Credibility refers to the scientific quality of the results and the arguments contained within these assessments. Finally, legitimacy refers to the way in which the interface institution is perceived by the actors in its ability to consider, as impartially as possible, the differences in values ​​and interests of the various stakeholders involved. As highlighted by Cash et al., these three characteristics are generally interdependent; a certain way to build an evaluation will be linked to the definition of a need for knowledge, with some consideration given to stakeholders. As discussed in this paper, the issue of implementation actually involves looking at these three dimensions, including the strategic angle that we highlight below.

B | A gradual structuring of “science-policy interfaces”

It is, however, important to firstly return to the path that has led to the science-policy interfaces as we know them today. In the environmental field and in others, as we have said, the relationship between scientific activity and political decisions has been characterized by an increasing structuration. Historically, a certain number of environmental degradation issues have been raised mainly by scientists and relayed, particularly by NGOs and the media, to political and economic powers (see interview with Mario Molina). Their successes have supported an increasingly structured organization of the science-policy interface. The European continent has particularly distinguished itself in the scientific support of its environmental policies, and in cross border matters. European intergovernmental organizations that take action in the environmental field have, to varying degrees, developed a number of science-policy interfaces.

For example, the Berne Convention for the protection of wildlife in Europe adopted under the Council of Europe in 1979, was based primarily on specialized expert groups (dealing with large carnivores, butterflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians, etc.) composed of scientific specialists and officials dedicated to the protection and management of the species concerned. The dynamics of these groups, whose opinions are often taken up at the level of the Convention, have initiated the protection of emblematic and problematic species, such as brown bears, the lynx and the wolf. For these species, following the implementation of protection or sometimes even reintroduction, then regulation – if not elimination – is carried out in countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and France.

Scientific activity has also informed decisions taken at the intergovernmental level in the field of atmospheric or marine pollution. Similarly, we can observe in these areas a structuration of the relationships between intergovernmental institutions and the scientific community, with the creation of scientific committees and expert groups with the objective to advise, assist and/or monitor the decision-making processes. We also sometimes observe the establishment of ad hoc monitoring systems and research programmes. An illustrative case is that of the Vienna Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) adopted in 1979 as part of the fight against acid rain, conducted by the UN Economic Commission for Europe. The Convention is responsible for taking decisions on reducing emissions of major pollutants that can contribute to the formation of acid rain. The Convention was accompanied by the creation of a permanent observatory of pollutants (European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme - EMEP) consists of five centres and four “Task Forces” responsible in particular for the identification of the sources of air pollution and to assess their dynamics in the atmosphere ( Science-policy interaction has accompanied the adoption of protocols for the reduction of emissions of SO2, NOx, VOCs and other pollutants and the requirement for vehicle manufactures to equip cars destined for Europe with catalytic converters. The SO2 protocol was particularly well implemented. The results achieved for other pollutants, although not inconsequential, are slower to materialize.

Insert 1 | From alert raiser to expertise

“Historically, the ozone issue started with Sherwood Rowland and I exploring the fate of CFCs in the atmosphere. We were not in the environmental or the policy fields; we were fundamental scientists at that time, but decided we wanted to learn about the atmosphere by choosing an interesting problem in that field. Eventually, we came up with some worrisome ideas that we published in the journal Nature. We thought these issues were important enough to try and reach out beyond our scientific colleagues. So we decided to communicate both with members of government and other politicians, starting in the United States but also wherever it would be needed. We decided to communicate with the media as well to reinforce our message, because usually politicians respond more to media pressure than to scientific results. We also realized it was something we had to do ourselves. At that time, in the 1970s, directly communicating with the media was not generally accepted in the scientific community. We had a few colleagues who regularly spoke to major newspapers such as the New York Times, but they were not very well regarded and some considered them to be merely seeking publicity. Nevertheless, we decided that it was our social responsibility, because there was no clear reporting mechanism at that time for environmental problems. At present there are many environmental organizations that could conceivably take on such a job, but at that time there were only a few such organizations that were beginning to emerge; this was a new problem and most of the environmental issues that those organizations were dealing with were local issues.
We set up to do the job with some Congressmen in the US, as well as with some reporters. It was a slow process but some writers became interested enough to even publish a couple of books. The first press release we produced took the opportunity of the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, the largest professional organization there is, convening both scientists and industry. We were beginners; we didn’t know how to do this sort of thing, so we decided to proceed in a very orderly – and scientific – way. We thought that we should start by explaining that CFCs could be measured in the atmosphere, and at the end Sherry Rowland and I would explain that we were expecting a problem. As you can imagine, this was a mistake because reporters would only hear the beginning of the presentation. They all left before we could even talk about the problem. It took us a while, but we understood eventually how to do it. Especially we understood the usefulness of convincing several congressmen and senators in the US.”
Read the full interview with Mario Molina

C | The typical functioning of interfaces: a “composite picture”

Despite the great diversity of themes, to which the science-policy interfaces are dedicated, and the variety of institutional configurations that these interfaces have taken, a similar general rationale guides their work and can, in broad terms, be described by the following sequence:

  • Firstly, synthesize observations regarding the phenomenon/phenomena of concern;

  • Estimate the severity and associated risks;

  • Then identify and quantify the direct, and sometimes indirect causes of these phenomena by distinguishing between natural causes and those of anthropogenic origin;

  • If necessary, establish development scenarios;

  • Finally, review the possible solutions.

So far, in relation to environmental issues, attention has been mainly focused on the demonstration of a causal link between one or more “drivers”, and the observed phenomenon/phenomena. In the case of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the negotiations regarding the various “summaries for policymakers” have often focused on the way the causal link between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is expressed. The abovementioned strategic dimension of environmental debates should be considered at this juncture. The fact that the stakeholders of environmental issues have generally relied on the support of scientific works has its corollary here. For opponents of environmental policies, attacking the findings of experts and of institutions at the science-policy interface, in particular by challenging the credibility and/or the legitimacy of the processes followed, somehow becomes the natural objective. The attacks of climate sceptics are a typical example of this.

The difficulty in implementing the actions identified by experts varies according to the subjects and the recommendations do not receive, so to speak, the same acknowledgement.acknowledgment. Governments will more easily address issues with technical solutions at costs acceptable to them – even if the causal mechanisms are not clearly understood – than if these issues lead to “transformation agendas” of the economic system or of land use and human activity planning in general. Resistance to change will be far greater in one case than in the other. Regarding acid rain, technical solutions (catalytic converters, desulphurization of heavy fuel oil, unleaded petrol, general improvement of combustion processes to reduce pollutant emissions) had already been developed by the industry and could be imposed at acceptable costs without major changes in the economy of the sectors concerned. Some rather audacious decisions have therefore been taken on this issue, particularly on SO2 that has been virtually eradicated in Europe over twenty years. Similarly, in the case of the Berne Convention, it has been possible to protect species and habitats by technical and legal measures of protection and management that have only marginally affected human activities. The situation is quite different for climate change, and for the greater development of biodiversity protection issues by starting to question agricultural models, for example. In the case of climate, even if the responsibility of human activities has been clearly identified, quantified and weighed, the implementation of solutions faces huge economic, social and political issues, particularly regarding energy policy.

This returns us to the issue of the major limitation regarding the way in which science-policy interfaces on environmental work have tended to be “framed”. As highlighted above, this framing has so far mainly focused expertise onto the issuing of warnings and on the precise and increasingly certain identification of the anthropogenic causes of environmental problems. This is often accompanied by the secret ambition that a convincing demonstration would support more ambitious action for the environment. However, following 2015, a year that saw the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris Agreement on climate, the challenge more than ever is now less one of conviction, than one of the implementation of sustainable development trajectories (Treyer, 2016). Of course, research must retain its role of raising the alarm, but it must now be accompanied by an ambitious research agenda on implementation solutions.

At the time of implementation: towards a humble but ambitious environmental expertise?

What avenues can be identified to renew what is expected of expertise within the framework of implementation? Generally, the first step would be to recognize and to debate the normative and deterministic dimension (so far we have essentially searched for cause and effect relationships) of expertise and the political or even strategic/conflictual implications of its results. Similarly, a change in attitude is probably necessary to go from the search for control to that of experimentation and collective learning. In this context, it will be necessary to accept a certain amount of uncertainty and to prevent this uncertainty from restricting the debate. Indeed, the accumulation of new knowledge, especially when it reveals little known facets of a problem (for example, regarding ocean acidification in relation to climate change, which has only recently received truly international attention), tends to add uncertainty to the debate and to amplify controversies, rather than solving them (Latour, 1998). In addition, for issues such as climate change, we cannot exclude the possibility that we are facing non-deterministic phenomena, for which our ability to predict the future will remain limited, and some uncertainties will always remain, regardless of the amount of available data or the advancement of models (Colombier, 2013). For example, long-term climate modelling are today converging well on the average changes in temperature and precipitation, but it is much more difficult to predict the evolution of extreme events such as droughts or floods, which are crucial in the design of action: how can a dam be designed without reliable data on 100-year-floods? Finally, in this big data era, the obsession with quantification should not prevent thought and reflection, nor should it remove our desire to increase our capacities for thought, to make long-term projections or to explore grey areas devoid of data.

Sociologists such as Edgar Morin have been hammering the message for decades: “We have acquired unprecedented knowledge about the world and yet everywhere there is error, ignorance, and blindness that progress alongside our knowledge. A radical awareness is necessary because these errors, ignorance, blindness and perils have a common character that results from a mutilating knowledge organization mode, unable to recognize and understand the complexity of reality.” We expect thought processes to “lift the fog and darkness to put reality in order and to reveal the laws that govern it.” This overly simplistic approach is akin to a “degraded use of reason”, unable to grasp the complexity of reality. A “blind intelligence” that destroys groups and totalities, isolates all objects from their environment, and cannot conceive the inseparable connection between the observer and the observed.

There is probably no indisputable scientific framework for sustainable development. With a background of increasingly nourished but still incomplete analysis, each individual or collective actor, with its system of values ​​and interests, works towards a certain definition of the world or what it should be. Sustainable development thus looks like an invention that is under continual discussion, more or less guided by a vision and political will, with permanent trade- offs between local and global interests and between the short and long terms. This social, political and institutional process is as important as it is difficult to grasp. It calls for further reflection on the context in which each acts and for enriching and multiplying the ways of thinking and acting, pushing the traditional boundaries of reasoning, both in space (what happens here has an impact elsewhere, that we must learn to appreciate and integrate into all action) and in time (giving more consideration to the long term in decision making). New areas for debate can then be opened up, beyond the usual canons of expertise, to the necessary changes of models in all their environmental, economic and social dimensions.

Thus, instead of waiting for a scientific community to reach a mythical total consensus, to provide “cold” advice as a basis for a political agreement, it seems rather that we need to learn how to navigate together across landscapes where passionate controversies abound on what we know of the world, what we want to do, and on who has a say on these issues.

A | Dealing with complexity and unpredictability: organizing the humility and reflexivity of expertise

Jasanoff (2003) suggests that environmental expertise approaches still suffer from three major limitations. First, the orientation of expertise towards the production of a discourse of control tends to induce an aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty, inducing a bias in favour of assertions with a high-level of certainty. In the case of climate, Victor (2015) gives the example of the latest summary for policymakers of the IPCC Group III, which is responsible for assessing the climate change mitigation options. During the negotiation on the summary, for which states must unanimously agree on every sentence and figure, statements with low levels of certainty – which are however those most directly related to the implementation of climate policies – have tended not to be retained.

The creation of these blind spots in the debate is even more damaging due to the fact that the current organization of expertise is also characterized by a reluctance to discuss the way it originally framed the issues. This is the second limitation highlighted by Jasanoff (2003): the rigidity of the frameworks tends to limit the discussion around their normative characteristics and tends to exclude legitimate proposals that are not expressed in terms of the dominant discourse. In the case of climate change, the definition of issues in global terms has emerged in the 1980s, supported both by climatology work, increasingly adopting a definition of climate as a property of the Earth system (“Earth-system perspective”) and the willingness of international institutions to promote global governance (Miller, 2004). This framework, while it can be justified on several levels, has nevertheless made it difficult to take into account the multiplicity of more “local” realities, and therefore of the distributive character, of the impacts of climate change. It also left relatively little room in the debates for the consideration of the polycentric nature of actions (Ostrom, 2010) that aim to limit greenhouse gases emissions and therefore, beyond state multilateralism, to the linking of different climate governance centres (sub-national governments, regional groupings, private sector and civil society initiatives, etc.). The third limitation highlighted by Jasanoff (2003) is that this has ultimately affected the ability of expertise to integrate emerging issues situated at the margins of its analytical frameworks.

To overcome these limitations, Jasanoff (2003, 2007) suggested adding “technologies of humility” to the tools of expertise, that is to say, to develop procedures to institutionalize a “humble” attitude towards the risks and to improve their management in collective action. The author proposes to start work on the identification of mandatory questions to be answered during the development of expertise and she suggests four such questions. Firstly, recalling the fact that the way in which problems are raised greatly influences the type of solutions proposed, she suggests that the framing of expertise should be regularly evaluated to allow redefinition when necessary. Secondly, she proposes that risk assessment starts primarily with an assessment of the socio-economic origins of the vulnerability of the most exposed individuals and systems. Then, questions of the distribution of action or inaction should be addressed. Finally, collective learning mechanisms, open to feedback from a wide range of stakeholders, could improve the robustness of knowledge. In a cross-cutting manner, we must also raise the issue of the participation of citizens, or at least of a greater number of actors and interests, in expertise and its governance, to strengthen its democratic legitimacy and political relevance.

These proposals concur with the observations of Beck et al. (2014), who suggest the need for a reflexive turn of international environmental expertise. The authors identify three challenges, which the IPCC and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) are regularly confronted with: a growing demand for political relevance, the integration of different forms of knowledge and calls for a greater public participation and accountability. This reflexive turn refers to the need for regular and organized self-criticism of the expertise mechanisms in relation to these requirements.

B | Diversifying perspectives: towards an environmental expertise that is more open to social sciences and citizen participation?

Regarding mobilized knowledge, humanities and social sciences (HSS) are generally under-represented in environmental expertise, and very partially represented. In the case of the IPCC, only the economy has a significant presence, especially in Working Group III. Victor (2015) thus recalls that nearly two-thirds of the coordinators of the chapters of the Working Group III’s latest assessment report were economists (mainly environment and natural resources economists) and that other disciplines were almost absent. Only one political scientist, David Victor himself, was among the coordinating authors of chapters, even though Group III is supposed to identify credible options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Group II, which is responsible for assessing the impacts of climate change and adaptation possibilities, less than a third of the 64 chapter coordinating authors came from HSS, among whom nearly half were economists (Victor, 2015). The same under-representation of HSS can be found within the IPBES (see interview with Marie Rouée). Montana & Borie (2015) studied the composition of the Multidisciplinary Expert Panel (MEP) of IPBES, in its interim version, and the current version designated in January 2015. The IPBES MEP is a group of 25 experts, nominated by states, with responsibility for the selection of authors, experts and reviewers, and for the supervision of the processes of framing, writing and editing of each IPBES deliverable; it therefore has an important role in the framing and production of IPBES works. In the intermediary MEP and the current MEP (2015-2018), the HSS have only accounted respectively for 16% and 24% of members, the current MEP having no HSS representatives from outside the European regions, the only nominated researchers in these disciplines coming from Europe. In the first thematic assessment of IPBES on pollination, only 8 of the 85 authors were from HSS (Rankovic and all., 2016). The efforts undertaken by the IPBES authorities to communicate to HSS researchers (Larigauderie et al., 2016) suggest, however, that there is an encouraging dynamic and that developments seem possible in the coming years.

Insert 2 |The limited place of social sciences at the IPBES

“There are still only very few representatives of the social sciences in the MEP. And if one excludes economics, there are even fewer of us. The current Chair of the MEP is Marie Stenseke, a Swedish geographer, but we are still in the minority. This trend is found among authors motivated by evaluations: there are very few social scientists among authors when they should number at least 30%, if not 50%. Without a critical mass of expertise in social sciences, the IPBES is not in a real position of interdisciplinarity, which is a barrier. Furthermore, in the debate between natural sciences and social sciences, we don’t take enough account of the researchers who have several decades of interdisciplinary practice. If you want to create interdisciplinarity, it’s not enough just to put a biologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, an anthropologist and a lawyer together in an office. You have to know the work and the literature, and be interested in contemporary practices. It’s not easy for researchers in the biological sciences to understand that in the social sciences there is already a body of interdisciplinary practitioners with decades of practices and fields. Many specialists in the natural sciences believe they are capable of establishing society’s position by themselves.”
Read the full interview with Marie Roué.

Disciplines such as sociology, anthropology or political science are nevertheless essential to identify the underlying, or “indirect”, causes of environmental degradation and to understand how individuals and groups view and respond to environmental changes (Victor, 2015). Areas such as the evaluation of public policies and the sociology of electoral behaviour could provide valuable information on, for example, the effectiveness of the instruments implemented in the framework of national policies on climate or biodiversity, or for example the place of environmental issues in election results. Just as the social studies of sciences provide crucial insights into how and why societies organize the production of knowledge and technology, both throughout history and in the contemporary world. One of the difficulties in mobilizing HSS comes from the fact that controversies between schools of thought are acute, and more difficult to reconcile than in natural sciences (where they also exist). A process of expertise making a more extensive appeal to HSS would probably not be able to erase these differences and would lead, rather than to unequivocal conclusions, at best to a structured presentation of controversies between disciplines or schools of thought and to a discussion on the analysis and conclusions of each. Should environmental expertise provide unequivocal results or contribute in a structured way to “encouraging thought” by the greatest number of people?

Regarding the opening of expertise to participation, the challenge is at least twofold. The purpose is to ensure that a greater variety of stakeholders are able to participate in the framing of the issues addressed by the expertise and that a greater diversity of knowledge, beyond the academic literature, can be analysed and taken into account. As Turnhout et al. (2012) highlighted, experience gained by many important actors has not so far been well integrated into environmental assessments. Local communities, businesses, farmers, fishermen etc., have so far been relatively neglected, even though they hold valuable knowledge about the state of the environment, about practices influencing the environment and the potential transformation levers. Similarly, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) still have a relatively limited say on the organization of environmental expertise. The opening of expertise, beyond improving its democratic nature through more participation, is also important to allow expertise to benefit from the wealth of knowledge that is not included in the academic literature. Moreover, these two issues are important for the legitimacy of environmental expertise, and thus indirectly of environmental issues themselves, in the broader political debate.

The so-called “Climategate” case in 2009, when hackers gained access to thousands of emails on the computer network of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, in England, and the reaction that followed, is a particularly illustrative example. The emails made public by hackers revealed the uncertainty of climate research, full of doubts and passionate exchanges about data, their analysis and interpretation. This was no surprise to anyone who has spent some time (even just a few days!) in a research laboratory. However, the emails have been extensively used by climate sceptics to accuse climate researchers of bias and even falsification, with some resonance in the political debates. How can we interpret the Climategate aftermath? In particular, this case highlighted the fact that transparency regarding procedural quality was insufficient to establish the legitimacy of an expert process (Jasanoff, 2011; Beck et al., 2014; Dahan & Guillemot, 2015). A large proportion of the public regarded climate expertise (and climate debate more broadly) as a private elite club, and these “behind the scenes” revelations were like a juicy scandal. It therefore seems that on top of the quality requirement for academic procedures, there should be a greater inclusion of actors other than states and scientists, and a broadening of the circles of expertise accountability beyond governments (ibid.). For now, only states truly have the authority to frame the IPCC’s work (defining the working programme of evaluation reports, requesting special reports and appointing experts) and to validate its summaries for policymakers. The participation of a wider range of actors in this work could help make the expertise more legitimate and give it more authority, and allow a wider proportion of society to appropriate the global expertise and its results; and this would, perhaps, help to make the issue a little more like “our” problem.

These issues have inspired discussions at an early stage during the establishment of IPBES, which was officially launched in 2012 under the auspices of UNEP. From the outset, the opinion was expressed that IPBES should not be seen as an “IPCC for biodiversity” (see for example, Hulme et al., 2011; Turnhout et al., 2012), and indeed the IPBES has a structure and functioning that are different to those of the IPCC (Beck et al., 2014). Regarding IPBES framing, there has been much debate on how to problematize the issues of biodiversity protection, corresponding to different normative standards (e.g. biodiversity protection as a legitimate objective in itself or justified in terms of providing ecosystem services) and more broadly cultural ones. For example, Borie & Hulme (2015) explained how the chosen framework for the work of IPBES attempts to link and make explicit in its work these different visions of the issue of biodiversity. IPBES is also open to the inclusion of traditional knowledge and more generally of non-academic knowledge on biodiversity and has carried out several works on how to effectively organize this inclusion. A major difficulty relating to this opening is to manage to consistently link this set of information and contributions, and to enable this diversity to be useful to identify avenues for action (Beck et al., 2014; interview with Marie Roué). This echoes the observation made previously on the potential difficulty of representing the contributions from different HSS schools.

But is this really damaging? In any case, it is far from the most common model of expertise, from which we expect unequivocal results, and refers more fundamentally to questioning what is expected of bodies of expertise.

C | Accompanying and monitoring change: the transformational ambition of expertise

The implementation of sustainable development policies requires radical change in all sectors of societies, their functioning and individual as well as collective behaviour. In this context, expertise should develop a greater focus on monitoring the implementation (what do we know about efforts to implement a more sustainable development by different actors? and what is the effectiveness of these actions?) rather than on “indirect factors” or “underlying causes” of environmental degradation. These are related to the functioning of human societies and are often disregarded in environmental expertise as it is currently framed. Yet, these are key issues since it is on these causes that action will need to be taken to achieve the desired transformations. In addition, expertise needs to be more inclusive so that during the course of change, minority actors are able to express their views, particularly if they are in a situation that threatens their existence. Knowledge synthesis to accompany the action will, inevitably, be controversial, if only regarding different world views and different alternative projects, which underlie the various implementation projects.

It therefore appears increasingly necessary to accept controversy and hold constructive discussions around it. Science-policy interface institutions may, increasingly, be trapped in a tension between different models of expertise. As Koetz et al. (2012) showed to be the case for IPBES (but is to a large extent valid for subjects other than biodiversity), since its inception this institution has been caught in a tension between what they call a linear vision and a collaborative vision of its functioning. The former describes IPBES operations that are close to the above-mentioned “composite picture”, aiming to produce summaries of the scientific literature for governments, which also commission evaluations. The latter mode of operation is more inclusive, involving a wide range of stakeholders and aims to more explicitly debate the way the problems should be framed, with a greater symmetry of influence of different categories of actors. These debates illustrate two quite different theories of action. In the first model, states are the main, if not the exclusive, guarantors of environmental action; in the second model, the responsibility for environmental action is more collective and mobilizes all actors of society; their inclusion in the expertise is intended to facilitate its appropriation “by all”. While, as raised above, the development of alternative models that are more inclusive, seems desirable on different levels, this will likely involve finding new balances between actors. These new arrangements, taking into account the strategic perspective raised above (Treyer et al., 2012), will have to be assessed on what they imply in terms of salience, credibility and legitimacy of the expertise produced.

For the organization of research, paying close attention to implementation is also an opportunity to develop innovative interdisciplinary devices (Treyer, 2016), which could be used to make a critical analysis of the implementation efforts and their effects. For example, a more iterative approach of interactions between research and implementation of policies could enable the assessment of the environmental effects of certain orientations during collective action, and even to anticipate the effects of future policy measures. An ambitious interdisciplinary work would then need to be developed to project “en route” these social choices on climate or ecosystems and, if appropriate, propose to redirect action towards more sustainable trajectories (Rankovic et al., 2012). A recent example of this approach can be found in Magnan et al. (2016) in relation to the implications of the Paris Agreement on climate in terms of the future impacts of climate change on oceans.

Conclusion: “Everything remains to be done, finally!”

We are therefore facing very ambitious projects to ensure that the future direction of expertise is able to provide the best support for transformational ambitions of sustainable development policies. How can this work be initiated? Internationally, the avenues mentioned in this article will have to deal with the constraints of the multilateral context, which remain very real. For institutions such as the IPCC or IPBES, states are the main parties: all decisions taken by these institutions are therefore, essentially, derived from complex multilateral processes. In addition, these institutions, even if they involve many volunteer researchers, however depend on government funding. The future guidelines of “organized” international expertise depend, in many respects, on initiatives taken by states, but why not also by coalitions of non-state actors to drive innovation.

In the near future it may be desirable to structure a dialogue, cross-cutting the sustainable development fields, on new forms of expertise. These could be more participatory and more willing to present the controversies in a structured and synthesized way, facilitating a greater shared understanding of issues and of different world views and their complexity, able to inform decisions in uncertain contexts and encouraging thought on the co-construction and co-implementation of solutions. This expertise that potentially carries a new philosophy of action, given the complexity of the issues and the uncertainty, animated by “a permanent tension between the aspirations for a knowledge that is undivided and not isolated or reduced, and the identification of all knowledge as always unfinished and incomplete” (Morin, 2005).

To what extent should and could this new type of expertise be organized? How can we intersect this expertise with the social responsibility of organizations, public and private? How can we integrate the fact that the implementation of this expertise and its actors are holders of expertise per se? After 2015 and its succession of embodiments in terms of commitments, it would be a shame not to mobilize knowledge to support implementation, which will have a great need for expertise. Indeed, as noted by Treyer (2016): “Everything remains to be done, finally!””.

1 The quest for certainty. A study of the relation of knowledge and action.


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