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World Science Forum

Closing the Gap Between Science and Politics: A European View

December 5, 2022 | by CRAIG WILLY

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We live in an age of political turbulence amid uncertainty about pending disasters. Whether dealing with fragile public finances, pandemic risk, or ecological collapse, humanity seems to stumble from one crisis to the next. The World Science Forum in December seeks to posit an alternative to such short-term thinking.

Shortly after taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden affirmed: “It is the policy of my Administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” High-level politicians and policymakers in Europe and elsewhere have made similar statements.

This ambition of conciliating science and politics lies at the heart of the biennial World Science Forum, known as the “scientists’ Davos.” From 6 to 9 December, scientists, policymakers, civil society, and business will come together in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss science and scientists’ potential contribution to challenges such as climate change, development, peace and diplomacy.

This offers an alternative to current trends of reactive policymaking, which tend to improvise short-term solutions. It is high time to dedicate time and resources to the important things that are not (yet) urgent.

In a new study, scholars at the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) make the case for democracies to do more to tackle long-term problems in a consistent way. The current crises of geopolitical conflict, climate change, pandemics, social polarization, and rising inequality “call for significantly increased efforts from governments to demonstrate long-term thinking and acumen in crisis management.”

How science can inform policymaking

This sparks the question: How can we orientate processes, institutions, and our habits towards long-term policymaking – which entails great foresight and self-discipline – while also preserving voters’ meaningful choices and a genuinely pluralistic political debate?

One answer, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s authors suggest, is to consult scientists and other experts early on to enhance the legitimacy and quality of policymaking. These experts, chosen in a transparent way, can inject state-of-the-art scientific knowledge into the center of policymakers, politicians, and citizens’ political debates.

According to the study, some countries already include expert knowledge effectively, among them Canada, Norway and Chile. In the South American country, “commissions comprised primarily of academic experts and which cover a broad political spectrum wield considerable influence in the formulation of government programs and the development of political reform proposals.”

In Turkey, as well as some European countries, however, the study highlights a lack of expert involvement in national political decision-making processes. This is all the more striking given that the European Union has long recognized the importance of science for policymaking. It strives for a sound foundation of knowledge to respond effectively to crises while also steering towards the needed transformative change in society and economy.

The European Union: a global scientific player and tech regulator

Europe is a scientific player, regulator and innovator with global impact. Along with the United States and China, the EU is one of the big three publishers of top scientific papers in the world. The EU’s Horizon Europe program is perhaps the biggest public research and innovation program, with a budget of €95.5 billion between 2021 and 2027.

What’s more, the EU, with its market of 447 million consumers and an economy equal to about one sixth of the global economy, is an influential scientific and technological regulator. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) required websites worldwide to adapt (hello consent pop-ups!) and prompted analogous legislation in jurisdictions as varied as China and California.

The EU’s draft AI Act is also stoking global dialogue on the legitimate uses of artificial intelligence. For instance, in its current form the Act would ban the use of AI by police for facial recognition or for social credit scoring.

Structured evidence-based policymaking

In addition to events like the World Science Forum, scientific consultation should be regular and structured. The European institutions rely on a growing array of scientific bodies and expert groups to inform their work. The EU Commission has a dedicated scientific service, the Joint Research Center (JRC), which has produced over 3,000 scientific reports since 2014, covering just about every topic imaginable.

More generally, the Commission seeks to systematically involve scientists in policymaking across Europe. Since 2019, it has integrated foresight into policymaking as a key department identifying mega-trends and future scenarios.

European legislators also use scientific expertise: Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) depend on the STOA panel to provide expert advice and hold debates on science and technology issues, such as AI, quantum computing, and 5G telecommunications.

We should not be naïve about science. As with any independent or civil society institution, involvement in policymaking may degenerate into politicization. Science may provide insights into the world and empower us technologically, but it remains up to us to use such knowledge wisely.

This century’s most consequential decisions for humanity’s future will likely revolve around scientific breakthroughs and how countries worldwide adopt the resulting knowledge and technologies. Whether artificial intelligence, gene editing, or new energy sources, the consequences will be momentous for human life, and indeed all life.

The best decisions will likely depend on the spirit of dialog between scientists, elected officials, and citizens. Good practices of expert involvement from some countries, the EU institutions’ systematic consultation of scientists, and events like the World Science Forum are a few examples of how to maintain this kind of conversation. If this dialogue is genuinely open and undertaken in a generous spirit of good faith, it will lead to the best solutions as well as mutual understanding.

Craig Willy is a political writer and analyst with a focus on the European Union, technology, and leadership. You can follow him on Twitter @CraigWilly06 and read his blog at Substack cwilly.substack.com.

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