What does science have to do with lobbying? Perspectives from the Circulus Seminar on New Sustainable Economies

Authors: Anran Luo, Hanna Helander & Machteld Simoens

Visual documentation from Seminar on Sustainable Economies by Jakob Kohlbrenner

As PhD colleagues in the interdisciplinary circular economy project Circulus, Hanna, Machteld, and I organized a seminar for early-career researchers working on alternative sustainable economy concepts such as circular, bio or low-carbon economy. Although we come from different disciplines and our research focuses on different dimensions of the circular economy, we share the idea that our research can and should impact policy and a broader social transformation. The feeling that our work directly relates to one of the most pressing issues of our time led us to our question of inquiry for the seminar: What kind of science-policy process is needed to bring about a transformation to a sustainable economy?

To engage participants in this discussion, we kicked off the seminar by introducing four typologies of scientist roles in relation to policy (Pielke 2007). The first one, the Pure Scientist, believes in doing science for science and considers policy advice as a summary of the state of knowledge in a particular field. The second typology, the Science Arbiter, moves a little bit closer to policy in the sense that s/he will give specific answers to concrete questions from policymakers, but avoids researching normative questions and focuses on positive questions that can be solved through scientific inquiry. The third one, the Issue Advocate, sees scientists as important stakeholders in political debates and aligns with political interest groups to advance their positions; while the the last case, the Honest Broker, seeks to increase policymakers’ scope of action on the basis of scientific analyses, while trying to make value judgments as transparent as possible. Next to these four “pure” roles, there is a ‘Stealth Issue Advocate’, who attempts to act as a Pure Scientist or Science Arbiter, while actually performing the functions of an Issue Advocate in a covert way.

Seminar participants discovered that our self-positioning in relation to policy, whether it is more neutral or more involved, depended on disciplinary backgrounds, research topics and contexts, but also the stage of research. Researchers in earlier work stages preferred to remain neutral towards policy decisions until they gained more clarity. Another discovery was that some researchers felt structural pressures to underplay policy positions they supported at scientific conferences to appear ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ and thus were peer-pressured into Stealth Issue Advocates even if that was not their original intention.

The keynote speakers Meadhbh Bolger from Friends of the Earth Europe and Stephan Lutter from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, expanded on the seminar conversation by bringing in their own experiences working together at the interface of science and lobbying on resource footprints for a circular economy within ecological limits. As the dialogue and the Q&A session unfolded, it became clear that the idyllic aforementioned typologies are even less static than our seminar findings.

A main question that emerged out of the keynote centered on how to ensure science integrity, credibility and transparency while at the same time communicate urgent messages about climate, environment and society in concise and engaging messages to policymakers and the public. Some participants saw no conflict between up keeping scientific credibility by remaining neutral as long as researchers were free to pose the research questions, collect their data and obtain results independently (Pure Scientist or Arbiter) and then using the objectively begotten results to support lobbying purposes and aligning with political groups that can make use of the results (Issue Advocate). Others, however, questioned the existence of scientific objectivity, since research questions, data selection and interpretations of results are always influenced by researcher bias to some extent. Furthermore, the fact that most research in Europe happens through third party funds and third party defined issues (themselves influenced by the political issue cycles that last 3–5 years at most) limits the speed and possibly the weight of research (thus questions the possibility to be a Pure Scientists or Arbiter). A third position questioned the whole idea of aiming to be Pure Scientists or Arbiter who do not engage in societal questions, given the approaching climate catastrophe. Is it not the responsibility of science to speak out as urgently as possible in times of crisis? What happens if the approach of appealing objectively with facts fails to bring about the transformation we need?

With these — and many more — interesting discussions and reflections, we concluded the early-career researcher seminar, strengthened by the experience that we are not alone with these questions, and motivated to make our research count.

Many thanks to all of our seminar participants!

By the Chair of Societal Transition and Circular Economy of the University of Freiburg