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Theodor W

The Paradox of Scientific Authority: The Role of Scientific Advice in Democracy

by Wiebe E. Bijker, Roland Bal and Ruud Hendriks
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009
232 pp., illus. 1 b/w. Trade, $32.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-52492-6.

Reviewed by Giuseppe Pennisi
Professor of Economics Università Europea di Roma
Rome, Italy


This is a very useful and provocative study. At a first and superficial reading, it may appear as a very specific organizational analysis on the actual workings of Gezondheidraad, the Dutch Health Council. This is a scientific body with both advisory functions in a large array of scientific matters and a decision-making authority in some rather specific medical topics. Hence, it would be of interest only to public organization analysts, especially in the Netherlands. At a deeper reading, the book is a sociologically constructivist study where the very detailed analysis of Gezondheidraad and of its effective actual internal operations  – not solely of the written rules, regulations, and procedures- raises much broader issues. These are of two kinds: a) how an independent technical Authority can be constructed and gain, over time and experience, standing and influence in the process of public policy making; b) how “civic epistemology” actually operates in a period, like these decades of the XXI Century, when scientific authority is no longer a “technocratic” monarchy like 100 ago when there was either only one sources of scientific advice or a limited number of them. Nowadays, “the role of scientific advisory institutions is . . . one element in the broader governance of technological culture” and its interplay with democratic institutions is both very sensitive and very tricky.  Also scientific advisory institutions are often competing for prestige, role in public policy making and, in short, effectiveness.  In the more descriptive part of the book, there a detailed and careful analysis of how, the Gezondheidraad has gradually responded to the changing situation by “connecting expertise and participation” mostly through committee work, consultations and hearings. Nonetheless, in the final part of the book, the Gezondheidraad case study is seen in its relevant merit: to raise fundamental policy, not only organizational, issues and to provide a number of answers to them. In short, by looking in detail at a single tree, the researcher can better understand the wood.

The issues range from the questions of how democracy (with its necessarily lengthy process) can be adapted to a technological culture (where timely choices are often essential) to the role of scientific advice in risk governance. These issues do not concern only the Netherlands but all technologically advanced countries – at least all OECD countries. For instance, in Italy, nowadays the Scientific Council analogous to the Gezondheidraad, on the one hand, and the Government and Parliament, on the other, are struggling to find an adequate solution to the “abortion pill” (RU 486): It is a stake not only bioethics versus science, but also different answers or different nuances to similar answers provided by a variety of technical experts within the same scientific authority and in the academic community at large. The solution proposed by the “official” and “statutory” Scientific Council is challenged by other equally authoritative experts. In Italy too, for the last 10 years a succession of Governments of different and diverging political orientations and of Parliaments with different majorities have attempted to provide for an overall reform of Scientific and Regulatory Independent Bodies.  Italian research and the national press explain this lack of progress with the conflicting interests of the various Authorities and of their supporters. Similar problems are faced in many OECD countries and internationally: A current example is the science of global warming in the spotlight also because it is surrounded by many doubts and uncertainties; another is the often proposed “new global financial market regulations”. The study by Bijker, Bal and Hendriks rightly proposes to look into deeper determinants dealing with the fundamentals of democracy in the age of science and technology. The method proposed by Bijker, Bal and Hendriks in this book could be a useful venue to find pertinent solutions to some of these national and international issues.

In reading the book, I have necessarily the vision of an economist that during his professional life has served in several Scientific Councils and Authorities dealing with matters such as the appraisal and selections of public investment, the reform of vocational training and more recently national arts and cultural policies. In all these positions, I have always felt that the technical advice the various Councils could give was effective if it was subdued and showed in a quite open and transparent manner its own limitations. Politicians and the civil society at large would resist technical advice if such advise sounds dogmatic and apodictic. This confirms one of the main findings of Bijker, Bal and Hendriks’ book.

The study raises the issue is risk governance.  The case study of Gezondheidraad actual workings provides evidence that seldom Scientific Councils differentiate between risk and uncertainty. In my view, risk can be handled through Bayesian stochastic statistics – viz. probability calculus. Uncertainty through the Dixit-Pindyck “real options” analysis. If Profs. Bijker, Bal and Hendriks find these hints useful, they could be the basis for further research.

Last Updated 4 January, 2010

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