Knowledge, Expertise and the Policy Process

23 March 2016


Reported by Patrick O'Hare, ESRC-Funded CSaP Policy Intern (February 2016 - May 2016)

Academics and policymakers from the UK, Japan and the Netherlands came together to discuss the contribution made to the field of science and policy studies by Susan Owens' new book, Knowledge, Policy, and Expertise: The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-2011 (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Presentations took as a starting point different chapters of the book and how they related to the participants’ own research, as well as the broader conclusions that might be drawn from them.

Albert Weale (UCL), a co-organiser of the event, discussed the paradigm shift in British environmental policy, away from “traditional pragmatism” towards “ecological modernisation”, in part a result of the increasing influence of continental European perspectives. David Lewis shared experiences and anecdotes from his time as Secretary of the Royal Commission, and presented a broad sketch of the Commission's history.

Harriet Bulkeley (Durham University) and Marcel Kok (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) focused on the differences between, and possibilities for, “advice” and “assessment” in the contemporary context of global environmental governance. Maarten Hajer (Utrecht University) argued that expert advice might be thought of as a third sphere “in-between” science and policy, and detailed evolving styles of scientific authority.

The lively discussion focused on the successes and ultimate demise of the Royal Commission; the nature of "good advice"; the persistence of a positivist understanding of scientific knowledge and the perceived risks of undermining it; and current pressures for research to be policy relevant but not policy prescriptive.

In addressing the many questions raised, Susan Owens emphasised the Commission’s effectiveness as a hybrid organisation, deriving authority from its positioning as a ‘scientific body’ but also from the diversity of its members’ expertise and its trademark style of rigorous ‘interdisciplinary deliberation’.

(Banner image from Pimthida on Flickr)

Dr Rob Doubleday

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Professor Tim Lewens

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

Dr Patrick O'Hare

University of St Andrews

Professor Susan Owens

Department of Geography, University of Cambridge