2015 Elections: Is Parliament Ready for Serious Dialogue with Science?

By Thierry Courvoisier, 17.09.2015

Thierry Courvoisier: President of the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) and of the association of Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, Professor
of Astrophysics at the University of Geneva.

(Foto: Metas)

Unlike man-made laws, the laws of nature cannot be adapted to accommodate societal developments. For this reason, researchers often face the difficult task of informing politicians about the consequences of the laws of nature. Examples of this include biodiversity loss, the approaching exhaustion of some resources and climate change. These problems need solutions which cannot always be adopted on a consensual basis and often run counter to short-term interests.

These topics assume a special place in the political debate. As long as short-term interests prevent us from finding real solutions they will not disappear. Take the example of biodiversity, which guarantees the variety of life and thus makes a fundamental and crucial contribution to ensuring that this planet remains habitable for us humans. In the report “State of Biodiversity in Switzerland 2014”, which was recently published by 35 scientific institutes in Switzerland and coordinated by the Swiss Academy of Sciences’ Biodiversity Forum, the researchers come to a sobering conclusion: “Biodiversity has suffered further significant decline in Switzerland in recent decades and the trend continues.” This example is typical of many other policy fields in the area of sustainable development: despite active policy responses and occasional progress, the downward trend continues. This also applies to climate policy. As demonstrated by the report Klimaziele und Emissionsreduktion (“Climate targets and emissions reduction”), the planned 20 percent reduction in Switzerland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 does not represent an adequate contribution to the attainment of the two-degree goal. Society must learn from these failures. To achieve progress we need close cooperation between science and society.

Switzerland is fortunate in having a participative democracy. Extreme care is taken here to weigh up and balance different interests. The role of researchers in this system with its quest to conserve a delicate balance is difficult by definition: despite the fact that they have access to knowledge that is of relevance to the future, they are merely a political plaything. The knowledge they provide is often not listened to or relativised on the basis of emphatically adopted short-term interests. To facilitate the disemmination of knowledge, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences intensively engage in dialogue with the political arena. Because the researchers do not represent any of their own interests in this dialogue, they are not involved in the actual weighing up and balancing of interests. And they cannot and should not be part of the actual political arena: independence is an important precondition for scientific policy consultancy.

Because the researchers themselves are not political actors in the strict sense, they need politicians in all parties who understand the principles of the laws of nature and through whom they can enable the introduction of scientific issues into the societal debate. Science is anything but an easy dialogue partner. It very rarely provides simple solutions. Physical and ecological measurements, and the conclusions drawn from them, are always accompanied by uncertainties and a lively scientific debate. Researchers endeavour to overcome these difficulties. They communicate the results of research through reports, fact sheets, submissions to legislative proceedings and meetings with politicians. The status of the available knowledge and the options for  action and their possible consequences are communicated, open questions are investigated, and political concerns and questions are dealt with. In many cases, science does not propose any clear options but refers to alternative scenarios and probabilities. For politicians, being willing to listen to science means engaging in an intensive and open dialogue with science. This alone enables the development of fact-based policies.

With the 2015 elections we have an opportunity to elect more politicians who have the courage, independence and perseverance to seriously incorporate the information provided by science into political decisions. But how can voters find the candidates who are willing to listen to science? The Academies of Arts and Sciences and the Swiss National Science Foundation have launched the ScienceDebate project to this end. In cooperation with the online electoral support application smartvote, we offer information which will help voters to assess how a party or its candidates deal with scientific information. The information provided does not provide any clear answers – not to mention voting recommendations. However, it gives voters a basis for their important choice so that the uncomfortable truths can lead to the necessary and often uncomfortable solutions – and not to an uncomfortable world.

For more information, visit ScienceDebate: www.sciencedebate.ch.

Editor's note: Individual contributions may reflect an author's personal perspective. Over time, the spectrum of political views will be reflected in the variety of the contributions published. Editorial principles  

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Last modification 22.09.2015

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