Scientific policy advice in the field of tension between politics, business and the public

Report from the 6th Stakeholder Conference of the BfR

The President-designate of the United States does not believe in climate change. “Postfactual” has been named International Word of the Year. The subject of the 6th Stakeholder Conference of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), to which the risk assessors had invited to the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW), could hardly have been more topical. Since research results are obviously less and less heard in the USA, the speakers emphasized that it is of paramount importance to maintain the link between science and politics in Germany and Europe if one does not want to experience the same development. Its beginnings are already emerging. Prof. Dr. Helmut Willke drastically formulated: “Democracy burns”, because of national egoism and populist tendencies.

The speakers determined the¬†position from different perspectives: BfR, BBAW, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) have laid down the mandate for policy advice in the law or in the statutes. Other bodies face the challenge of making themselves heard at all. Prof. Dr. Christian Pfeiffer’s motto is therefore “Scientists must find a mouthpiece in politics”. Independence, transparency and scientific excellence are the principles of the work of the BfR formulated in the statutes and at the same time principles that should guide all policy advisors. Dr. Peter Kupka reported that in case of doubt he rejects even third-party funds in order to preserve independence.

Political consulting moves between scientifically valid statements, political options for action and social demands. If the consultants can contribute their expertise and influence the opinion of the decision-makers, this is of course a success. Prof. Dr. Reiner Wittkowski pointed out, however, that the consultants cannot control what happens with their advice. If politics does not implement the consultation, the consultants should not understand it as failure. Prof. Dr. Armin Grunwald defined the identification of options for action as a central task of political consulting. The aim could not be to derive clear recommendations, because in addition to scientific knowledge, politicians must also take the values of a society into account in their decisions..

Prof. Dr. Gerd Wagner explained that science normally cannot solve complex problems. Politicians often have to make decisions that include value judgements, for example with regard to distributive justice. At this point, it could only be a matter for science to point out what is feasible and to inform about possible side effects of action. Another central task is the search for the best scientific instruments: Is there enough scientific evidence to answer a political question? If not, is it possible to gain scientific knowledge? Or are the scientific methods available insufficient? The role of science would be appropriate if it did not make too many promises and did not overinterpret its results. According to Wagner, this would require a broader public discussion, e.g. on ethical research principles.

Politicians face issues that become increasingly complex. Willke sees the danger of excessive demands on politicians. Due to multi-layered dependencies in the global system, the lack of transparency is increasing. Thus it would be necessary to involve scientific expertise more closely and to make more evidence-based decisions. His proposed solution is “Decentralized Democracy”. It combines parliamentary decision-making with simultaneous relief from “major tasks”. This is already the case with monetary policy or monopoly control, on which the Federal Central Bank and the Monopolies Commission discuss and decide.

Prof. Dr. Jan Christoph Minx reported on his experiences at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He sees a central difficulty of policy advice in the fact that the the decision-makers do not understand the solutions or measures proposed by the experts. In most cases the experts are unable to provide the relevant knowledge to the decision-makers. Political statements, for example, were the cause for the fall in the price of climate certificates and thus for their failure. Minx also finds it problematic that differences in the different scenarios developed by the experts cannot be explained systematically. This would remain unsatisfactory for decision-makers.


A German version of this article has been published in the Deutsche Lebensmittel-Rundschau (113th edition, February 2017, p. 83 f.)

Dr. Sabine Bonneck