INGSA workshop on social science advice to policy: perspectives from an early career researcher

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Alessandro Allegra
Doctoral Candidate in Science and Technology Studies, University College London


What are the current challenges and opportunities for social science advice to policy in Europe? What can social science tell us about the roles and responsibilities of scientific advisors? These are some of the questions addressed by academics, representatives of learned societies, and of philanthropic research foundations at a recent workshop organised in Berlin by the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) together with the Mercator Foundation and the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change on the 25th of April 2017.


The aim of the workshop was twofold: to explore how advice from the social sciences can best inform policymaking and address current societal challenges, and to discuss the principles underlying scientific advice, in itself a social phenomenon involving people, ideas, and institutions, that is ripe for social scientific analysis


As a gathering of scholars and practitioners sharing a broad common understanding of the issues, discussion moved quickly from the more general points to some of the more difficult and fundamental questions. One particularly interesting point that soon emerged is that the concept of social scientific advice as a unitary entity is far from unproblematic.


With the label ‘social science’ encompassing everything from econometrics to cultural anthropology, it is hard to see how social scientists could present a united voice to policymakers. Different disciplines approach social phenomena from different methodological and epistemic premises, looking at different levels of analysis and explanation, and providing what might appears as sometimes divergent accounts of the same phenomenon.


While such a rich and nuanced picture of the social world is important given the complexity of the phenomena under analysis, the diversity of perspectives could lead policymakers to wonder whether such advice is worth listening to, or even to pick and choose whatever perspective best support some preconceived position.


The lack of a common approach therefore risks creating a vacuum in the understanding of social challenges, which is filled by those disciplines that best manage to present what appears to be a convincingly coherent picture of the world. The risk with this is that the framing of a complex and multifaced social issue is monopolised by the lenses of a single discipline, so that for example everything becomes a market failure or an engineering challenge requiring a technological solution.


To address this, a closer link needs to be forged between the different social science disciplines, as well as with other scientific disciplines and the practice of policy itself. A closer understanding of both the plurality of ‘ways of knowing’, and the uses of such knowledge to address societal challenges, would contribute to an appreciation of the need for a pluralistic approach.


As an early career researcher, this realisation leads me to ask many questions.


While multidisciplinary agglomerations are clearly one way to bring to bear diverse and experts perspectives on problems, these groups themselves can become internally siloed or remain at an abstract level of discourse if there is not skill and willingness to cross disciplines among members. What sort of professionals could fulfil this and other emerging synthesis roles?


If policy considerations, robust disciplinary expertise, a broad understanding of the methods and content of other research fields are all necessary to effectively engage with today’s challenges, what sort of professional figure could fulfil such role? How can such a multifaceted professional figure emerge from a world where career structures are still largely built around traditional disciplinary and institutional affiliations? What sort of educational and development pathways exist to foster such broader approaches?


An overhaul of the labour market for intellectual work would be needed to address this. If the siloes between different forms of theoretical and practical expertise are to be brought down, suitable professional pathways will have to emerge to allow people to build careers spanning multiple fields of research and practice. Current incentive and reward structures make it hard for people to transition between different domains of theory and practice, making it particularly unappealing for those at the early stages of their careers.


The idea of ‘portfolio careers’ has become established in some fields, where workers combine a number of part-time, temporary, freelance, and entrepreneurial roles instead of having a single job. Could such an approach work for someone trying to span academia, industry and policy? Could, and should, the intellectual labour market head in the direction taken by other industries?


While more career flexibility might appear desirable, consideration should also be given to the risks of short termism and insecurity, as currently seen in the academic sector where widespread casual employment and short term grants are increasingly taking the toll among early career researchers. The jokingly proposed “Uber for scientific advisors” might not eventually prove the right model to address the need for more intellectually mobile professionals, able to move across disciplines and sectors, but neither will the current system of academic employment.


The community at large, including researchers and research users, will need to think critically about what it needs from, and can offer to, the next generation of researchers and advisors. This itself will prove a challenge that will require input from all involved, and multiple intellectual perspectives.