The Limits of Being an ‘Honest Broker’

By Kira Matus, The London School of Economics and Political Science

Kira contributed this article as part of our call for blogposts on conference themes. Submit your blogpost:  

During the first day of this conference, we have heard repeated calls for science advisors to act as ‘honest brokers’ (as defined by Roger Pielke).  From my own (non-scientific) observation, this term is increasingly common in discussions about the role of the scientist in the policy process, especially amongst practitioners. It is held up by some as the gold standard model of the science advisor. And I can certainly see the practical appeal.

After all, the first word in the term is ‘honest.’ It would be hard to convince people of the legitimacy of a ‘prevaricating broker’ or a ‘selectively truthful broker’ or a ‘I tell you what I want to hear broker’ (some would argue that those roles are already well served in politics- see most any episode of ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘In the Thick of It’ for examples).

I would like to argue that we need to take a step back and think more carefully about the ‘honest broker,’ and our use of this term. While there are certainly elements of the ‘honest broker’ model that are potentially helpful, is this a realistic or useful way of looking at science advising? Should this be the standard to which science advisors are held?

To begin, we should keep that in Pielke’s model, science advisors are not divided solely between ‘honest brokers’ and the ‘issue advocates.’  Pielke also presents the ‘pure scientist’ and the ‘science arbiter.’  In the first, scientists do their work solely within the scientific arena, leaving it to the policy community to find it on their own.   In the second, policy actors ask scientists very specific questions, and the scientist provides an answer just to that question.  In certain contexts, these can be useful ways for science to enter into policy, especially when uncertainty and/or political conflict are low.

In cases where we are dealing with uncertainty and controversy, science advising becomes much more challenging.  In Pielke’s model, being an honest broker requires a scientist to consider and evaluate the entire range of policy options, often expanding the scope of options based on her expertise.  What is not clearly articulated, but which is crucial, is how, exactly one would go about this.  In reality, this may fail for reasons of practicality and desirability.

First, developing this kind of totally comprehensive science advice is a massive task.    For many problems this would be cognitively impossible for an individual.  We all have limits to our personal knowledge.  Most of the problems dealt with by policy are the messy, complex kinds that require consideration of a broad range of disciplines. Sarewitz has pointed out that some amount of our scientific uncertainty stems from the lack of coherence between different scientific understandings. Even for a group of experts, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be collect and sort it all within time frames typically required to be useful to policy makers.  Decisions will always have to be made to put boundaries around the analysis.

This leads to issues around judgment- how do you draw those barriers?  We cannot ignore the internal values and politics of science itself.  Different disciplines place very different weights on aspects of research like methodologies, approaches, and types of evidence (these are not always agreed within disciplines either).

Every scientist has developed a set of practices and preferences through which they see the world- and the work of other scientists.  The concept of the honest broker is appealing because it allows us to see science advisors as separating out evidence from values.  But as several speakers pointed out, that line is a blurry one.  It will be influenced by our personal preferences and biases, and reflected in how science advice privileges certain types of evidence.

Finally, in the model, an honest broker answers the scientist’s questions about her role without considering how that is actually shaped by the needs of the policy makers.  We have already seen during this workshop that different kinds of advice are needed for different parts of the policy process.  Ministers may need a CSA who is politically savvy, and also able to (privately) provide a challenge function.  Civil servants may need an answer to a specific question around implementation, and MP’s may want a brief summary of the evidence base.  In some cases, taking the broadest possible scope is the exact opposite of what is required.

The honest broker is certainly a useful starting point, but we should avoid the temptation to end the discussion there.  This conference has already brought up a number of important areas that any model of best practice should consider.  We have heard repeatedly that trust, transparency, clarity, empathy and consistency are all critical to successful science advising.

We have seen the use for different models of science advice for different contexts.  We know that we have to better understand how to develop supportive institutional structures that include independence and accountability.  We need to confront the tensions between being objective and deploying our judgment.  And we cannot forget that this is not a one-way street.  There are different targets of science advice with different requirements and capacities.  We have to look more carefully at what makes science advice useful, so that it can help policy to have positive impacts on society.

Kira Matus is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  Her research focuses on the intersection of science, innovation, policy and sustainability.  In the area of science advice, Kira, in collaboration with Prof. Martin Lodge, is researching the interactions between science and politics around the issue of cattle TB in the UK and NZ.  The first of a series of papers on the topic, ‘Science, Badgers, Politics: Advocacy Coalitions and Policy Change in Bovine Tuberculosis Policy in Britain’ was just released in this month’s issue of Policy Studies JournaI.  Kira has a BSc in Chemistry, an MSc in Technology and Policy, and a PhD in Public Policy.