"Coming out"

08/10/2011 - Scientists should do science, not appear in the public sphere – that’s a popular view. This week, philosophers and physicists, economists and ecologists discussed this issue in a workshop initiated by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance. “Science has to constantly follow the principle of truth”, says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK. “And that is exactly why it has a societal responsibility.”
"Coming out"
Schellnhuber at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance. Photo: PIK

Especially climate science has to inform society about its findings – because it matters for the future of everybody. What is needed is a “coming out”, “an escape into the public”, says Schellnhuber. Insights in global warming are something that decision-makers as well as ordinary citizens tend to suppress in their minds, because these insights are worrying. This is why scientists have the task to tell the public “what it does not want to hear”, says Schellnhuber. “If I know more than I can dare to conceal, I have to speak out.”

Several philosophers amongst the participants referred to the idea of an ethical triangle me-us-nature. To take responsibility, they said, means to face the consequences of one’s actions, and to do so based on reasons. Science is inevitably always in the middle of society, it just cannot pretend to be apart, they argued. A few natural scientists claimed that science has an obligation for public restraint to safeguard its reputation. Representatives of environmental pressure groups, on the other hand, promoted a more active role of science.

PIK’s chief economist Ottmar Edenhofer presented a pragmatic model of scientific policy consulting. Policymakers often want science to provide single solutions, leaving no room for alternatives – and scientists often provide them. However, it is not working out if politics just defines the objectives and science provides the means to reach them, Edenhofer says. Frequently, there are secondary effects that make it necessary to re-evaluate the objectives. And often there are several ways to reach a target. Scientific policy advisory therefore hast to offer an array of if-then-options to decision-makers, Edenhofer says. And science would have to organize public learning processes while goals get implemented.

Quite a few participants of the discussion announced to start searching options for – what it had been called – a structured dialogue between science and politics on the issue of climate change and a turn in energy.


More information on the debate

More information on the pragmatic model of scientific policy consulting

Link to the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance