Experts and the Will of the People


Book by Harry Collins, Robert  Evans, Darrin Durant and Martin Weinel: “The rise of populism in the West has led to attacks on the legitimacy of scientific expertise in political decision making. This book explores the differences between populism and pluralist democracy and their relationship with science. Pluralist democracy is characterised by respect for minority choices and a system of checks and balances that prevents power being concentrated in one group, while populism treats minorities as traitorous so as to concentrate power in the government. The book argues that scientific expertise – and science more generally — should be understood as one of the checks and balances in pluralist democracies. It defends science as ‘craftwork with integrity’ and shows how its crucial role in democratic societies can be rethought and that it must be publicly explained. This book will be of value to scholars and practitioners working across STS as well as to anyone interested in decoding the populist agenda against science….(More)”.

Comparative Constitution Making


Book edited by Hanna Lerner and David Landau: “In a seminal article more than two decades ago, Jon Elster lamented that despite the large volume of scholarship in related fields, such as comparative constitutional law and constitutional design, there was a severe dearth of work on the process and context of constitution making. Happily, his point no longer holds. Recent years have witnessed a near-explosion of high-quality work on constitution-making processes, across a range of fields including law, political science, and history. This volume attempts to synthesize and expand upon this literature. It offers a number of different perspectives and methodologies aimed at understanding the contexts in which constitution making takes place, its motivations, the theories and processes that guide it, and its effects. The goal of the contributors is not simply to explain the existing state of the field, but also to provide new research on these key questions.

Our aims in this introduction are relatively modest. First, we seek to set up some of the major questions treated by recent research in order to explain how the chapters in this volume contribute to them. We do not aim to give a complete state of the field, but we do lay out what we see as several of the biggest challenges and questions posed by recent scholarship. …(More)”.

Why policy networks don’t work (the way we think they do)


Blog by James Georgalakis: “Is it who you know or what you know? The literature on evidence uptake and the role of communities of experts mobilised at times of crisis convinced me that a useful approach would be to map the social network that emerged around the UK-led mission to Sierra Leone so it could be quantitatively analysed. Despite the well-deserved plaudits for my colleagues at IDS and their partners in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Wellcome Trust and elsewhere, I was curious to know why they had still met real resistance to some of their policy advice. This included the provision of home care kits for victims of the virus who could not access government or NGO run Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs).

It seemed unlikely these challenges were related to poor communications. The timely provision of accessible research knowledge by the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform has been one of the most celebrated aspects of the mobilisation of anthropological expertise. This approach is now being replicated in the current Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Perhaps the answer was in the network itself. This was certainly indicated by some of the accounts of the crisis by those directly involved.

Social network analysis

I started by identifying the most important looking policy interactions that took place between March 2014, prior to the UK assuming leadership of the Sierra Leone international response and mid-2016, when West Africa was finally declared Ebola free. They had to be central to the efforts to coordinate the UK response and harness the use of evidence. I then looked for documents related to these events, a mixture of committee minutes, reports and correspondence , that could confirm who was an active participant in each. This analysis of secondary sources related to eight separate policy processes and produced a list of 129 individuals. However, I later removed a large UK conference that took place in early 2016 at which learning from the crisis was shared.  It appeared that most delegates had no significant involvement in giving policy advice during the crisis. This reduced the network to 77….(More)”.

For academics, what matters more: journal prestige or readership?


Katie Langin at Science: “With more than 30,000 academic journals now in circulation, academics can have a hard time figuring out where to submit their work for publication. The decision is made all the more difficult by the sky-high pressure of today’s academic environment—including working toward tenure and trying to secure funding, which can depend on a researcher’s publication record. So, what does a researcher prioritize?

According to a new study posted on the bioRxiv preprint server, faculty members say they care most about whether the journal is read by the people they most want to reach—but they think their colleagues care most about journal prestige. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prestige also held more sway for untenured faculty members than for their tenured colleagues.

“I think that it is about the security that comes with being later in your career,” says study co-author Juan Pablo Alperin, an assistant professor in the publishing program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. “It means you can stop worrying so much about the specifics of what is being valued; there’s a lot less at stake.”

According to a different preprint that Alperin and his colleagues posted on PeerJ in April, 40% of research-intensive universities in the United States and Canada explicitly mention that journal impact factors can be considered in promotion and tenure decisions. More likely do so unofficially, with faculty members using journal names on a CV as a kind of shorthand for how “good” a candidate’s publication record is. “You can’t ignore the fact that journal impact factor is a reality that gets looked at,” Alperin says. But some argue that journal prestige and impact factor are overemphasized and harm science, and that academics should focus on the quality of individual work rather than journal-wide metrics. 

In the new study, only 31% of the 338 faculty members who were surveyed—all from U.S. and Canadian institutions and from a variety of disciplines, including 38% in the life and physical sciences and math—said that journal prestige was “very important” to them when deciding where to submit a manuscript. The highest priority was journal readership, which half said was very important. Fewer respondents felt that publication costs (24%) and open access (10%) deserved the highest importance rating.

But, when those same faculty members were asked to assess how their colleagues make the same decision, journal prestige shot to the top of the list, with 43% of faculty members saying that it was very important to their peers when deciding where to submit a manuscript. Only 30% of faculty members thought the same thing about journal readership—a drop of 20 percentage points compared with how faculty members assessed their own motivations….(More)”.

New technology and ‘old’ think tanks


Article by Tom Ascott: ‘Expert or academic carries out research. Generates rigorous 40-page report. Comms officer is asked to promote said report. Launch event, press release, tweets. Maybe a video. Maybe an infographic’. This is formula for how think tanks seek to influence policy matters. It is how they build, maintain and increase their credibility. While it has arguably worked since the expansion of the think tank community following the Cold War, this model of disseminating information is now fraying.

It is not a sustainable model because it is largely, and in some ways even designed to be, inaccessible to a larger and now increasingly inquisitive public. This inaccessibility is only accentuated by the large number of institutes specialising in niche subjects, which are often more agile and better able to leverage technology to their advantage. Tastes also change: for many of today’s potential punters, the enforced networking associated with think tank events may be considered a negative experience; being able to watch lectures and conferences from home, alone, may now be considered of greater benefit.

The publication of written reports and holding launch events, unlike broader communications methods, are often targeting specific policymakers or stakeholders. In the short term, this strategy may work for think tanks, in the sense that they can address their core audiences. Still, the model faces two main hurdles.

One is providing policymakers with what they need. Paul C Avey and Michael C Desch, two US-based academics, found in their study ‘What Do Policymakers Want From Us?’ that ‘the only methodology that more than half of the respondents characterised as “not very useful” or “not useful at all” was formal models’. The respondents in their study thought that the best policy advice came from practitioners or journalists, those looking at underlying causes. Yet some ‘think tankers’ continue to take a dim view of journalism, for the very reasons which make journalism important: rapidly responding to developing events, and offering a broader perspective, usually shorn of the uncertainties inherent in deeper knowledge or analysis.

The second, broader, problem is how think tanks are perceived. US President Barack Obama famously ‘disdain[ed]’ foreign policy establishments and institutes, and those who are not engaged with them perceive them as being elitist….(More)”.

Age of the expert as policymaker is coming to an end


Wolfgang Münchau at the Financial Times: “…Where the conflation of the expert and the policymaker did real damage was not to policy but to expertdom itself. It compromised the experts’ most prized asset — their independence.

When economics blogging started to become fashionable, I sat on a podium with an academic blogger who predicted that people like him would usurp the role of the economics newspaper columnist within a period of 10 years. That was a decade ago. His argument was that trained economists were just smarter. What he did not reckon with is that it is hard to speak truth to power when you have to beg that power to fund your think-tank or institute. E

ven less so once you are politically attached or appointed. Independence matters. A good example of a current issue where lack of independence gets in the way is the debate on cryptocurrencies. I agree that governments should not lightly concede the money monopoly of the state, which is at the heart of our economic system. But I sometimes wonder whether those who hyperventilate about crypto do so because they find the whole concept offensive. Cryptocurrencies embody a denial of economics. There are no monetary policy committees. Cryptocurrencies may, or may not, damage the economy. But they surely damage the economist.

Even the best arguments lose power when they get mixed up with personal interests. If you want to be treated as an independent authority, do not join a policy committee, or become a minister or central banker. As soon as you do, you have changed camps. You may think of yourself as an expert. The rest of the world does not. The minimum needed to maintain or regain credibility is to state conflicts of interests openly. The only option in such cases is to be transparent. This is also why financial journalists have to declare the shares they own. The experts I listen to are those who are independent, and who do not follow a political agenda. The ones I avoid are the zealots and those who wander off their reservation and make pronouncements without inhibition. An economist may have strong views on the benefits of vaccination, for example, but is still no expert on the subject. And I often cringe when I hear a doctor trying to prove a point by using statistics. The world will continue to need policymakers and the experts who advise them. But more than that, it needs them to be independent….(More)”.

Smarter Select Committees


Theo Bass at Nesta: “This report outlines how digital tools and methods can help select committees restore public trust in democracy, reinvigorate public engagement in Parliament and enhance the work of committees themselves.

Since their establishment in 1979, select committees have provided one of our most important democratic functions. At their best, committees gather available evidence, data and insight; tap into public experiences and concerns; provide a space for thoughtful deliberation; and help parliament make better decisions. However, the 40th anniversary of select committees presents an important opportunity to re-examine this vital parliamentary system to ensure they are fit for the 21st century.

Since 2012 select committees have committed to public engagement as a ‘core task’ of their work, but their approach has not been systematic and they still struggle to reach beyond the usual suspects, or find ways to gather relevant knowledge quickly and effectively. With public trust in democracy deteriorating, the imperative to innovate, improve legitimacy and find new ways to involve people in national politics is stronger than ever. This is where digital innovation can help.

If used effectively, digital tools and methods offer select committees the opportunity to be more transparent and accessible to a wider range of people, improving relevance and impact. Like any good public engagement, this needs careful design, without which digital participation risks being distorting and unhelpful, amplifying the loudest or least informed voices.

To achieve success, stronger ambition and commitment by senior staff and MPs, as well as experimentation and learning through trial and improvement will be essential. We recommend that the UK Parliament commits to running at least five pilots for digital participation, which we outline in more detail in the final section of this report….(More)”.

Hyper-active Governance How Governments Manage the Politics of Expertise


Book by Matthew Wood: “Hyper-active governance is a new way of thinking about governing that puts debates over expertise at the heart. Contemporary governing requires delegation to experts, but also increases demands for political accountability. In this context, politicians and experts work together under political stress to adopt different governing relationships that appear more ‘hands-off’ or ‘hands-on’. These approaches often serve to displace profound social and economic crises. Only a genuinely collaborative approach to governing, with an inclusive approach to expertise, can create democratically legitimate and effective governance in our accelerating world. Using detailed case studies and global datasets in various policy areas including medicines, flooding, water resources, central banking and electoral administration, the book develops a new typology of modes of governing. Drawing from innovative social theory, it breathes new life into debates about expert forms of governance and how to achieve real paradigm shifts in how we govern our increasingly hyper-active world…(More)”.

The 100 Questions Initiative: Sourcing 100 questions on key societal challenges that can be answered by data insights


100Q Screenshot

Press Release: “The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering announced the launch of the 100 Questions Initiative — an effort to identify the most important societal questions whose answers can be found in data and data science if the power of data collaboratives is harnessed.

The initiative, launched with initial support from Schmidt Futures, seeks to address challenges on numerous topics, including migration, climate change, poverty, and the future of work.

For each of these areas and more, the initiative will seek to identify questions that could help unlock the potential of data and data science with the broader goal of fostering positive social, environmental, and economic transformation. These questions will be sourced by leveraging “bilinguals” — practitioners across disciplines from all over the world who possess both domain knowledge and data science expertise.

The 100 Questions Initiative starts by identifying 10 key questions related to migration. These include questions related to the geographies of migration, migrant well-being, enforcement and security, and the vulnerabilities of displaced people. This inaugural effort involves partnerships with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Commission, both of which will provide subject-matter expertise and facilitation support within the framework of the Big Data for Migration Alliance (BD4M).

“While there have been tremendous efforts to gather and analyze data relevant to many of the world’s most pressing challenges, as a society, we have not taken the time to ensure we’re asking the right questions to unlock the true potential of data to help address these challenges,” said Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer of The GovLab. “Unlike other efforts focused on data supply or data science expertise, this project seeks to radically improve the set of questions that, if answered, could transform the way we solve 21st century problems.”

In addition to identifying key questions, the 100 Questions Initiative will also focus on creating new data collaboratives. Data collaboratives are an emerging form of public-private partnership that help unlock the public interest value of previously siloed data. The GovLab has conducted significant research in the value of data collaboration, identifying that inter-sectoral collaboration can both increase access to information (e.g., the vast stores of data held by private companies) as well as unleash the potential of that information to serve the public good….(More)”.

Virtual Briefing at the Supreme Court


Paper by Alli Orr Larsen and Jeffrey L. Fisher: “The open secret of Supreme Court advocacy in a digital era is that there is a new way to argue to the Justices. Today’s Supreme Court arguments are developed online: They are dissected and explored in blog posts, fleshed out in popular podcasts, and analyzed and re-analyzed by experts who do not represent parties or have even filed a brief in the case at all. This “virtual briefing” (as we call it) is intended to influence the Justices and their law clerks but exists completely outside of traditional briefing rules. This article describes virtual briefing and makes a case that the key players inside the Court are listening. In particular, we show that the Twitter patterns of law clerks indicate they are paying close attention to producers of virtual briefing, and threads of these arguments (proposed and developed online) are starting to appear in the Court’s decisions.

We argue that this “crowdsourcing” dynamic to Supreme Court decision-making is at least worth a serious pause. There is surely merit to enlarging the dialogue around the issues the Supreme Court decides – maybe the best ideas will come from new voices in the crowd. But the confines of the adversarial process have been around for centuries, and there are significant risks that come with operating outside of it particularly given the unique nature and speed of online discussions. We analyze those risks in this article and suggest it is time to think hard about embracing virtual briefing — truly assessing what can be gained and what will be lost along the way….(More)”.