Basing public policy on science and knowledge

Date: 30 Oct 2016

The success of the IPCC has promoted a specific form for scientific expertise for environnement. How to assess these bodies which are central for sustainable development governance ?

The success of the IPCC and the high esteem accorded to its work, which was acknowledged by the award of the Nobel Prize, have highlighted the importance not only of scientific work applied to the knowledge and management of global and regional issues, but also the organization and dissemination of this work to influence decisions. Others have sought to adapt this model to apply to other global issues, particularly through the establishment of analogous assessment bodies. Thus in 2010, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), dedicated to biodiversity assessment, was established following long negotiations that clarified its mandate and enabled the resolution of differences. Other examples include: in the marine area, monitoring activity is being structured via the World Ocean Assessment; the Global Soil Partnership has been established to address soil degradation, along with a specific convention at the interface of science and policy to tackle desertification; and the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition has been set up to support global food security. At the same time, the Rio+20 Summit has officially adopted the principle of the regular publication of a Global Sustainable Development Report. Is the establishment of such expert bodies relevant to other fields, and is this trend likely to develop further? How do these bodies influence public policy and research for sustainable development pathways? Do we have sufficient feedback to improve their contribution to sustainable development?
The initial focus of our exploration will concentrate on the relationship between expertise and environmental policies, because experts have been at the heart of the environmental awareness movement since the nineteenth century, as whistle-blowers, critics or government advisers. It is true that the successes achieved so far seem firstly to address linear causalities - the impact of transboundary air pollution on the acidification of lakes, soils and forests, or more generally the impact of pollution on health; of fishing practices on fish stocks; hunting on migratory species, etc. When phenomena result from multiple and mixed causalities, when they are more difficult to understand, for example in situations of high uncertainty, when they are subject to more complex economic models, such as the modalities of adaptation to climate change or during pesticide application, then expertise and its organization are often unable to fulfil the role of decision-making support. Are the expert bodies that are developing today designed to take into account the complexity inherent to sustainable development or to inform decisions in uncertain situations?
A second focus of our analysis will question the very organization of these expert bodies to find ways to improve their contribution to both knowledge on sustainability issues and the design and implementation of strategies and policies. Do the objectives of these evaluation exercises correspond to the complexity of the search for sustainability? How do we identify the problems that should be analysed and the possible courses of action? How do we organize the debate between experts and politicians and decision-makers, public or private, and what place does this leave for other actors in the governance of sustainable development? Do we see the emergence of a single model for assessing environmental problems?
It should also be noted that following “Climategate” in 2009-10, the solution advocated by the academies of science, and also put forward by scientists like Bob Watson, was to consolidate the procedures of quality and excellence of “sound science”, to show the irreproachability of procedures. While this is certainly necessary, it does not resolve the difficulty of knowing how science can intervene to support the transition to action on environmental matters in situations where game theory indicates that no one has an interest to act.
Since sustainable development is ideally based on a broader societal acceptance of the necessary change of trajectories, what knowledge can be mobilized and put forward? How will the results be disseminated, discussed and publicized?
How can we analyse the dominance of so-called exact sciences on these bodies in relation to the social sciences? Does this choice, supported in particular by many policymakers around the world, limit the nature of the transformational ambitions? Can the bodies focused on these so-called exact sciences prescribe policies to States or set up devices to make governments accountable for their results? What influence can they have on other actors (private sector, civil society)? One could also note that once we accept the fundamental role of the social sciences, we must also accept that their mode of progression, the conditions for the validation of their theories, do not make them easy-to-use “decision tools” for policymakers: there are inevitable and sometimes endless controversies between schools of thought, uncertainties for which probabilities cannot be calculated...