Scientific studies are politicized


The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the functioning of scientific policy advice into the light of media attention. Although it is not to be expected that fundamentally new insights into the relationship between science and politics will come to light, a few aspects of the crisis situation created by the virus distinguish it sufficiently from previous ones to justify the renewed interest.

First of all, there is the imminent danger to the lives of many people posed by the virus, which is kept in the general awareness by the daily reports in the media. The immediacy of the danger is heightened by the fact that it is intangible. The invisibility of the virus prevents each individual from defending himself independently and makes all members of society dependent on the advice of the few experts who are familiar with virus infections. In this - in this case extreme - dependence on the knowledge of science there is also politics, which must take measures to coordinate and control collective action in such a way that the spread of the virus is prevented and further health, social and economic consequential damage is avoided.

In this way, the public interest, primarily (but not only) controlled by the media, focuses on individual scientists. They become, at least for a limited time, representatives of science. The necessary trust in them that goes along with the dependency, as well as the almost exclusive media attention, makes them attackable and vulnerable at the same time. This is all the more true as the knowledge required to effectively fight the virus is initially only available to a limited extent and the experts still have to generate new knowledge. At the beginning of the pandemic, this lack of knowledge gave rise to measures, the radical nature of which proved in retrospect, at least in part, to be undifferentiated. The initially far-reaching restrictions of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms have placed politicians at considerable risk of legitimacy. Only in the further course and under the pressure of economic consequential damage could the measures be refined on the basis of new knowledge. In the course of this "learning process", which both science and politics have gone through, a politicization of scientific diagnoses has begun.

Significantly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been repeatedly compared to climate change in terms of the relationship between science and politics. The comparison is instructive in several ways. First of all, important differences: Climate change is potentially far more dangerous than the pandemic, but the danger it poses is - at least in large parts of Central Europe - not immediate, but lies in an indefinite future. Politicians are also not under the same time pressure with regard to their decisions to cope with climate change - not least because the complexity of the decisions asked and their social, political and economic consequences affect longer periods of time. After all, the dependence of politics on science is not as narrow as it is in the case of the pandemic.

However, and this is where the similarities begin, there is definitely a dependency: The diagnoses of climate research are alarming enough to suggest political action and to justify it in detail. The required decisions would sometimes result in profound interventions, both in economic freedom and in individual lifestyle. Climate experts enjoy great media attention on specific occasions, for example through climate conferences, extreme weather conditions, scientific studies and, more recently, through social movements such as Fridays for Future. For some time now, the dangers they describe have become more concrete and clear, for example in illustrated reports on the retreat of the polar ice.

With this brief sketch of various aspects of the relationship between science and politics in the context of current crises, the framework has been created in which the various forms of this relationship are to be described and analyzed. These questions must be pursued: Which rules or principles apply in general to scientific policy advice? Who advises politics with what knowledge? Who is heard and why? What influence does public communication have?

Rules and principles

For this context, it is sufficient to briefly address the fundamental difference between science and politics and the resulting rules for policy advice. The starting point is the ideal-typical determination of the different system rationalities of science and politics. Science is about the production of knowledge that is as secure as possible, that is, knowledge that has been tested by a large number of researchers. The central question of all scientific activity is: What is true? In politics, on the other hand, it is about gaining support for decisions. To do this, it is necessary to take into account the different interests and values ​​of the voters, so compromises must be sought. In the majority of decisions, however, there are at least partial questions that can only be answered by using knowledge.

This results in the fact that modern democracies are based on a double legitimation: legitimation through elections, i.e. through the approval of the majority of the population, and legitimation through secure knowledge. For politics, this results in a potentially dilemmatic constellation, namely whenever scientifically based expert advice with regard to upcoming decisions is in conflict with political interests and ideological convictions. Continued disregard for scientific evidence can lead to a loss of legitimacy as well as a lost election. It also follows that scientific knowledge can legitimize political decisions as well as delegitimize them. [1] This connection establishes the ever-present possibility that scientific knowledge is politicized.

This specifies the conditions from which the four principles are derived, which form the ideal framework on which the organization and practice of policy advice should be oriented: distance, plurality, transparency and publicity. distance ensures the independence of science from politics and prevents a mixture of interests and scientific judgments. plurality requires the appropriate involvement of disciplines and advisors. transparency the advisory and decision-making processes ensure trust in them. And Publicity means access to relevant information and is a prerequisite for trust. [2]

Inevitable choices

The predominant part of the scientific policy advice takes place routinely in firmly institutionalized bodies, in advisory boards of the ministries, in expert councils or commissions of the regulatory administration as well as by the scientific services of the parliaments. Sometimes it is about the legitimation of controversial decisions, such as in the case of the "Ethics Commission for a Secure Energy Supply", which was supposed to prepare the phase out of nuclear energy in 2011 after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. In addition, so-called ad hoc commissions are used, the lifespan of which is strictly limited. For all these committees, politicians have set procedural and appointment rules, areas of responsibility and, above all, the intended forms of use of the results of the consultation in the respective mandates. [3]

These formal consultation formats are supplemented by many more or less informal consultations, when members of the government or MPs, depending on the situation, turn to experts either planned or spontaneously in order to obtain information and discuss specific questions with them. You can choose from numerous think tanks, private and party-bound research institutes, independently acting political advisors and a wide variety of scientific organizations and academies, all of which address politics on different occasions with their respective scientific competence (or without such competence) and compete for their attention. Because the range of available information is more extensive than ever, politicians can only perceive a fraction of it. The inevitable selection that takes place at any given time is controlled by a number of factors, of which only the most important are mentioned here.

First: the question under discussion in each case. The formulation of the question often already (partly) determines the result of the consultation, which is why it is often politically controversial. Sometimes questions to potential consultants are restricted out of ignorance of the facts or on purpose. As a result, the knowledge relevant to the answer (and indirectly the consultant) is selected, other knowledge is ignored.

Secondly: the respective values ​​and interests as well as the political and ideological convictions. The reception of scientific knowledge is subject to what is in psychology motivated reasoning is mentioned: Scientific information is more likely to be believed if it confirms one's own convictions. [4] For example, supporters (and politicians) of the Republican Party in the USA believe in a significantly lower percentage of anthropogenic climate change than those of the Democratic Party. [5] The same applies to the assessment of the risk of infection by the coronavirus. [6]

Third: the strategic and legitimizing function of the knowledge requested. Knowledge can be used in political negotiation processes to strengthen one's own position or to weaken the opposing position. Exemplary among many relevant examples is the strategic use of knowledge to prevent political regulation by the tobacco industry in the USA. [7]

Fourth: the choice of consultants. The strategic handling of knowledge on the part of politics is usually implemented through the choice of the advisors. The relationship between political and scientific positions, which from the perspective of politics makes a strategic selection possible, is not given in all cases and is sometimes based on assumptions. The fact that scientific experts can be assigned to certain political positions and are selected according to their known or suspected positions is explicitly recognized, for example, in the composition of the inquiry commissions of the German Bundestag. These commissions are a special type of scientific or expert advice to Parliament and the preparation of decisions based on this. In the selection of experts by the parties, care is taken to ensure that they are loyal to the basic positions of the respective proposing party and that they support the positions of the parliamentary groups in the work of the Commission. [8]

The more uncertain (incomplete) scientific knowledge, the easier it can be strategically interpreted and used in argumentation by politicians according to their respective convictions and interests. This became particularly clear in the Corona crisis, not least because the advice given to politicians by health experts was largely public. In this case, it was a question of assessing suitable strategies for combating the virus. The majority of virologists and epidemiologists rely on breaking the chains of infection. A minority, on the other hand, recommended a strategy of so-called herd immunity. It is mainly represented by scientists and politicians who see an economic recession as a greater danger than the health threat posed by the virus due to the restrictions on public life. [9] While the majority position set the tone in Germany (and still is), at the beginning of the pandemic, governments of other countries (initially) preferred to rely on the recommendations of advocates of herd immunity - in Sweden or the United Kingdom, for example, but have now abandoned this path. Nevertheless, different positions between prominent virologists in Germany were exploited in a media-effective manner, which shows that the inner-scientific conflict in politics (and in the public) opens up considerable potential for politicization.

Role of public communication

The vast majority of scientific policy advice takes place in camera. One can therefore only speculate as to why which advisors are heard (and why others are not). The corona crisis and previous pandemics such as swine fever in 2009/10 or bird flu from 2004 are an exception in that much of the advice of the experts concerned has been made public. However, it is unclear whether and, if so, which further recommendations were and will be communicated in camera.

Since the corona pandemic reached Germany in spring 2020, the director of the Institute for Virology at the Berlin Charité, Christian Drosten, has sat next to Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn at various press conferences, which demonstrated that he had the minister's ear. At the same time, this form of presentation gave his advice political weight. Similarly, in the United States, the immunologist Anthony Fauci and the medical doctor Deborah Birx were introduced at the regular press conferences in the White House by US President Donald Trump before he gave them the floor. This form of mutual legitimation of science and politics before the eyes of a large public is rarely found in this pointed form and is probably particularly suitable for gaining public acceptance for the sometimes drastic measures. [10] However, the downside of this also became apparent in the USA, namely that scientific advice, especially if it takes place in public, can also delegitimize political positions - in this case with fatal consequences for science: because the persistent negative reports on the development of the pandemic are not politically for him fit, Trump finally stopped the regular press conferences with Fauci and Birx and even insulted Fauci as an idiot in the final phase of the 2020 presidential election campaign.

The fact that the arrangement between science and politics is sensitive is also shown in the Corona crisis by the fact that the restrictions on social, cultural and economic life in view of the high number of infections, especially in the public perception, are often attributed to the well-known experts alone - with the Effect that the displeasure of the opponents of the measures is diverted to them. For many a scientific adviser, the increased prominence went hand in hand with abuse and attacks by conspiracy theorists and even death threats. This is evidence of how double-edged calling on scientific advice can be. On the one hand, it can be particularly necessary when complex decisions of high urgency are pending - because the reference to science contributes to the legitimation of political assessments and decisions. On the other hand, the same situation can be interpreted as a shift in political responsibility to the scientific advisor - or it can be in fact also in order to avoid criticism of unpopular decisions. [11]

Finally, when asked why some scientists are more heard than others, there are several answers. The examples given refer to two factors. First: Depending on the problem at hand, the experts whose competence appears to be the most relevant are heard first. However, what is considered relevant can change. The best example of this is the shift in the pandemic problem from the virological and epidemiological risk of spread and infection to the perception of the economic effects and thus from the advice of virologists to that of economists. Secondly: The media visibility of the advisory process, and thus that granted to advisors by politics (and the media), determines the importance that their individual ability to communicate their scientific knowledge can acquire.

Lessons from the pandemic?

In Germany, Christian Drosten in particular assumed a special role during the Covid-19 pandemic - not only as a political advisor, but also as a science clarifier for a wider public via a podcast by Norddeutscher Rundfunk. As early as April 2020, he received a special prize "for outstanding communication in science in the Covid-19 pandemic" from the German Research Foundation and the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft (Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft). The reason for the award was that he "explains to people in a clear, transparent and fact-based way what science knows, how it works and what uncertainties exist.Drosten also corrects theses that have not been scientifically proven, communicates the limits of his own knowledge "and thus achieves" trust among a large number of people and also in politics ". [12] A study by a communication agency already showed a" Drosten effect "The speech that may have created a new style of communication:" A communication that, through a new openness, through the connection of expertise and empathy, dynamism and error culture, can build trust and create understanding for dealing with complex challenges - e.g. also in Climate change. "[13]

In fact, an open approach to uncertainties and a corresponding style of communication could also be useful for communicating climate research to the public. But even here, and especially against the background of the recent hype about science communication and science's turn to the public, ambivalences should not be overlooked. On the basis of decades of research, climate researchers see the dangers of global warming more specifically and therefore more urgently than the general public, for whom the threat is still largely abstract. Skepticism, however, comes more easily than trust and is more difficult to refute. This makes it much more difficult for climate researchers than for epidemiologists during an acute pandemic to convince politicians of unpopular measures.

In addition, when communicating from science to the public, another finding must be taken into account: Research on anthropogenic climate change is interdisciplinary and deals with a highly complex topic, which is why disagreement among scientists is likely for a long time to come. The situation in virology and epidemiology is comparatively more homogeneous - and studies have shown that scientific consensus increases the credibility of the relevant findings. [14] Thus, it remains an ongoing task of scientific policy advice not only to convey "finished knowledge" to its addressees in politics and the public, but also to always bring the functionality and logic of the scientific community closer, if necessary to explain contradictions and the limits of the respective disciplinary knowledge and one's own knowledge to make it transparent.