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Between truth claims and wishful thinking - science for politics and society

46/2016, 15.11.2016

BfR stakeholder conference "Scientific policy advice in the area of conflict between politics, science and the general public"

Whether it is to assess the consequences of technology, climate change or consumer health protection, science is called upon when it comes to making political decisions. But how can and should political decision makers be advised in concrete scientific terms? On 18 November 2016, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) will host a stakeholder conference to explore the subject of "scientific advice to policymakers" from different perspectives. "Safety is a basic human need. In a democratic society, citizens expect decision that affect their life and health to be legitimised by scientific insights", says BfR Vice President Professor Dr. Reiner Wittkowski. "The challenge is to provide independent, quality-assured and transparent assessments of scientific findings, for politicians need sound advice to ensure knowledge-based decisions. It also means communicating the degree of scientific uncertainty and openly dealing with knowledge gaps and even scientific divergence." The conference which will be held at the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences in Berlin will explore the challenges to science-based political advice in such diverse policy fields as consumer health protection, internal security, the future of welfare systems and the consequences of technical and scientific developments.

Every day, the BfR draws up a number of expert opinions and statements in which it assesses health risks and possible courses of action for decision makers. As an independent scientific institution in the area of consumer health protection, the goal of the BfR is to provide the best possible evidence as a basis for political decisions. In many cases, it is exposed to public criticism if the presented scientific conclusions do not accord with certain political or social demands or expectations.

The conference will therefore focus on the question what role science-based political consulting can and should play in the area of conflict between scientifically valid statements, viable political courses of action and societal demands. If the consulting process is to be based on sound scientific ethics, political decision makers must be given a balanced account of all the available scientific evidence. It must therefore overcome the conflict between scientific legitimisation of political decisions in the sense of “expert advice” on the one hand and the role as “honest broker” on the other. This is done by naming the extent and depth of uncertainty of scientific statements and by openly communicating the weighting of diverging scientific opinions on a particular topic. The conditions must be identified under which scientific knowhow can act as the basis for political decisions. However, possible constraints must be mentioned as well. At the BfR stakeholder conference, the role of science-based political advice in and for society is to be defined in more detail: what should it achieve, what can it achieve but also: what can’t it do and what should it not attempt.

Experts from different fields of inquiry, i.e. the natural, social and economic sciences will present their specific challenges of science-based policy consulting and discuss both its potential and its limits using concrete examples.

It is recognised that science-based policy advice has long since begun to transcend national boundaries. Many decisions relating to regulations are either already taken at the European level or else negotiated within the framework of global institutions such as the Codex Alimentarius of the World Health Organisation (WTO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) or the World Trade Organization (WTO). But even for purely national regulations, the globalised economic relations must at least be considered. The scientific statements must comply with the internationally accepted standards that apply in the natural sciences in particular but increasingly also the social and economic sciences. This too will be discussed during the conference.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.


This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.