#FEMSmicroBlog: “The Honest Broker,” and what scientists can learn from it


“The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics by Roger A. Pielke, Jr is an introduction and field guide for researchers who think: I want to contribute to policymaking; but how? The book is equally suitable to those (including policymakers) who feel: Why is there not more knowledge informing that policy decision? Both questions are not easy to answer. The language, the knowledge, the common ground for a dialogue between the two parties might not be there. Thankfully, there are roles, examples, and tools that researchers can follow to have an impact in the decision-making process. Corrado Nai and Paul Cos present in this #FEMSmicroBlog entry what researchers can learn from – and possibly even how they can become – an Honest Broker.#TheCulturePlate

“The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics” by Roger A. Pielke, Jr (2012), Cambridge University Press

Research is so important that it just needs more funding. A new finding should reach the ears of policymakers, who need to act upon it. Some decision-makers might purposely turn away from evidences. Other might be overwhelmed by the complexity of science, the deluge of information, the lack of contacts.

What to do?


Four different roles for researchers

Any researcher and policymaker with a tad of integrity will agree that facts and reason are essential components in evidence-based policymaking, and many will argue that evidence-based policymaking is good policymaking.

Given this general common ground, is it just a matter of finding each other then, communicating properly, and speaking a common language? Well, there is more to it. Much comes down to which, among four possible roles, a scientist plays (summarized in Table 1).

These roles are idealized, meaning that, in fact, scientists can take over a particular role in one instance, and a different role in another; scientists can somehow sit in-between roles; or they can, intentionally or unintentionally, disguise themselves in one role, while in fact assuming a different one. But these idealized roles are helpful nonetheless:

  • The Pure Scientist has no interest in the decision-making process, only in the science. They might think, for example, that great science will eventually (hopefully) emerge into good societal outcomes. To get enmeshed into politics is none of their business.
  • The Science Arbiter might be a bit more engaged in decision-making. When called upon, they might happily provide resources, but no advice.
  • The Issue Advocate has a clear mind of what the science is telling policymakers. They are advising and reducing choices in the decision-making process.
  • Finally, Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives expand or clarify the choices for decision-making in an unbiased way. Best outcomes are achieved with a diversity of views, experiences, and knowledge.
Table 1: The four (idealized) roles scientists can assume in policy-making depend on their personal attitudes, that is, their view of science, and their view of democracy (adapted from Pielke Jr, 2007).

All roles are honourable and dignified. As Roger A. Pielke Jr, author of the book “The Honest Broker” (Cambridge University Press, 2007) says: “Effective, democratic decision-making depends upon a healthy diversity of roles played by scientists in society […]; it is important that the scientific community fulfil each of the four roles.”

But scientists need to make a conscious, active choice on which role to play, and be aware of the consequences. Pure Scientists and Science Arbiters might, unconsciously or deceivingly, slip into “Stealth Issue Advocacy,” debating policy options via scientific arguments, without disclosing their value commitments. Scientists should not “hide [policy-arguments] behind science.”

The book “The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics is about understanding the choices scientists who wish to get involved in policymaking have, and how they can better help decision-makers achieve their goals (Science for Policy) while, at the same time, help science thrive (Policy for Science).


Science in democracy

Both scientists’ view of science and their view on democracy affect which one of the four idealized role they might assume in policymaking (Table 1).

When experts consider democracy as an “interest group pluralism” (James Madison, 1787), then they are better off serving society by aligning themselves with their favourite faction or interest group, or with none at all (Issue Advocacy, Pure Science).

But if experts consider democracy as a “competitive system” (Elmer Eric Schattschneider, 1975), with the public allowed to choose between alternatives, then their role is to clarify those policy alternatives and their implications (Science Arbitrage, Honest Brokerage).

Some researchers view the role of science in society as a linear one. Basic research will inevitably lead to applications and societal impact, they assume. Or they might believe that scientific consensus leads to political consensus, and thus inevitably to policy implementation.

And while both interpretations have merit (for example, to make sure basic research is free from political influences; or to find a normative answer to a scientific fact, in the rare cases when political values are shared and uncertainty in the outcome is low), they have limitations, too.

For example, thinking that if a fact is established scientifically, political outcome should result, leads easily to the instrumentalization of science at the service of different values.

And most importantly reality – and arguably, science too – is not linear: There is the need of complex feedbacks between scientists and decision-makers. The “stakeholder model” might reflect reality better than the “linear model.”

In part II, we will cover the topics of values, uncertainty, and suggest some ways in which scientists can participate to the process.

Below are some ways we encourage microbiologists in the FEMS network to get involved:


About the authors of this blog

Paul Cos is full professor at the University of Antwerp. He teaches cell cultures, microbiology, pharmaceutical microbiology and infectious diseases courses. He is currently Director of Business & Policy at the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS). He has published over 250 articles and has an h-index of 48. His main research interests are 1) bacterial lung infections with focus on Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Streptococcus pneumoniae and 2) targeting redox homeostasis in mycobacteria.



Corrado Nai is part of the FEMS Team and what he enjoys the most is working with professionals at different career stages from across Europe and the world involved with FEMS. A former fungal researcher turned community manager, he is passionate about all things fungi. He supports FEMS in the new areas of Business & Policy to connect with industry and to help bring the voices of scientists into the policymaking process.

About this blog section

In the section #TheCulturePlate, we give a voice to our network, which is greatly diverse and spread all over the world. We present personal accounts, views, opinions, and interviews.

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