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Putting scientific facts under the magnifying glass

Jeroen van der Sluijs studies the use of scientific facts in policy making. He is now in the final round in the competition of becoming a Norwegian Centre of Excellence (SFF).

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Jeroen Van der Sluijs
POST NORMAL RESEARCHER: Jeroen van der Sluijs is doing research on scientific uncertainty to get politicians to make better decisions.
Photo:
Kim E. Andreassen

”The main question is how scientific research produces facts to support knowledge based political decisions. This is especially the case in highly complex situations with a lot of uncertainties and scientific disagreements,” says professor Jeroen van der Sluijs at the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), at the University of Bergen (UiB).
 
He is leader of the application to establish Centre of Responsible Evidence Appraisal (REAppraise). The suggested centre is one of 34 SFF-applications, of a total of 150, which have passed on to the final round in the Research Council of Norway´s announcement of grants to establish new centres of excellence.

The centre aims to do research on how science produces information that supports decision making, when huge social challenges are at stake.

Climate change, pandemics, food security and new technology are all areas that require political decisions, which may have a long-term negative effect on the environment and the society, a long time before all the consequences are fully mapped.

”Most of the so-called huge social challenges implies so much risk and uncertainty, often linked to value based controversies, that traditional academic science is no longer usable. It can therefore not be used as advice for policy making,” says Van der Sluijs.

Postnormal science

According to Van der Sluijs, to be able to give better advice in the field between science, a new and better scientific approach is needed. So-called evidence based research can easily be misused/abused in decision-making.

He says one way to approach the problem is by so-called post normal science, a concept introduced by the researchers Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz in the early 1990s. One of the most important tasks of post normal science is mapping scientific uncertainties.


”Post normal science is all about getting access to, and understanding, the elements of uncertainty and the value dimensions in all scientific research that can be implemented in political decisions,” says Van der Sluijs.

Moral progress wanted

One of the major scientific and political challenges today is that technology is moving very fast, while the moral progress is lagging behind.

”I think the situation would have been much better if we had invested just as much resources on moral progress as we are doing on the technological. Today, this balance is far gone,” Van der Sluijs says.

”There are only small groups, like SVT, which encourages ethical, critical reflections on controversial science and technology. We need to unite the various groups, and become an international centre. This means more continuity and development in the research. With a centre we can do groundbreaking research.”

Jeroen Van der Sluijs was recently ranked number 25 in the Dutch Top 100 list of the most influential people that contribute to sustainable development. He was one of very few academics amongst politicians and former prime ministers. Much of this was due to his efforts to prove that bees have lost their sense of direction as a result of the use of insecticides, and therefore remain in danger of extinction.