When are scientists neutral experts or strategic policy makers?

By Karin Ingold

Karin Ingold (biography)

What roles can science and scientific experts adopt in policymaking? One way of examining this is through the Advocacy Coalition Framework (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). This framework highlights that policymaking and the negotiations regarding a political issue—such as reform of the health system, or the introduction of an energy tax on fossil fuels—is dominated by advocacy coalitions in opposition. Advocacy coalitions are groups of actors sharing the same opinion about how a policy should be designed and implemented. Each coalition has its own beliefs and ideologies and each wants to see its preferences translated into policies.

I build on the work of Weible and colleagues (2010), who distinguish three types of ‘subsystems’ in which policy is made:

  • a collaborative subsystem, where at least two coalitions exist; they have different opinions, but want to overcome them
  • an adversarial subsystem, where existing coalitions do not trust each other, rarely cooperate and are, therefore, in competition with one another
  • a unitary subsystem which is formed by one united and homogenous coalition in which there are almost no opponents.

What is the role of scientific experts in these subsystems?

First, if the subsystem is collaborative, science can mitigate between the two opposing coalitions and there is chance that a compromise can be found. More concretely, the two or more coalitions can each defend different stances regarding the issues of concern, but a collaborative solution is still possible. There is thus room for brokerage by scientific experts as neutral actors, who are not part of any of the coalitions. The result would be an evidence-based or science-informed policy output.

Second, the conflict between the two coalitions might be so extreme that no possible compromise can be found. Thus, no possibility for knowledge brokerage exists. In such a situation, scientific experts might wish to intervene as full coalition members, meaning that they can defend beliefs and policy preferences in the way that any other (non-neutral) political actor does. In these circumstances political actors can also use scientific results for their own purposes, with or without input from the scientists. They may “cherry-pick” the results that suit their cause, ignoring those that do not.

Third, if the subsystem is unitary and consists of only one single, large coalition, there is no need for brokerage or advocacy by science. Hence scientific experts might take a peripheral role and act as mere information providers to those who require information.

As this typology shows, scientific experts are not neutral actors in policymaking. There are situations, typically in unitary subsystems dominated by one advocacy coalition and a low level of conflict, where politically engaged actors might look for scientific advice, and where scientists become mere information providers. In other more or less conflictive situations, scientists can act as any other politically engaged actors, be it in broker or advocacy roles. These roles are summarized in the figure below.

(Source: Ingold and Gschwend 2014)

Does this gel with your experience? Are there other roles you have seen or experienced for scientists in advocacy coalitions?

To find out more:
Ingold, K. and Gschwend, M. (2014). Science in Policy-Making: Neutral Experts or Strategic Policy-Makers? West European Politics, 37, 5: 993-1018. Online (DOI): 10.1080/01402382.2014.920983

Sabatier, P. A. and Jenkins-Smith, H. C. (1993). Policy Change and Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, United States of America.

Weible, C. M., Sabatier, P. A. and Pattison, A. (2010). Harnessing Expert-Based Information for Learning and the Sustainable Management of Complex Socio-Ecological Systems. Environmental Science and Policy, 13: 522–34.

Biography: Karin Ingold PhD is Professor at the Institute of Political Science and the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern, Switzerland. She is head of the Policy Analysis and Environmental Governance Group at the Social Science Department of Eawag (the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) in Dübendorf, Switzerland. She is most interested in how politics shape policy and how to best address human-environmental problems.

7 thoughts on “When are scientists neutral experts or strategic policy makers?”

  1. An article in Science Magazine is a nice complement to this piece.


    Was “science” on the ballot?

    Stephen Hilgartner, J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Sheila Jasanoff

    Science 26 Feb 2021:
    Vol. 371, Issue 6532, pp. 893-894
    DOI: 10.1126/science.abf8762

  2. Karin: this differentiation is most relevant as a means of mapping out the different scenarios that researchers need to gauge. You may find resonance in the 1999 book “Cultivating peace: Conflict and collaboration in natural resource management” (Edited by Daniel Buckles; IDRC & World Bank).
    There are several case studies that could be reviewed in the context of your three ‘subsystem’ scenarios, and Ch. 5 provides a conceptual map of stakeholder analysis and conflict management (summary on p. 105). It focuses more on the roles and options for convenors and facilitators of a multi-stakeholder situation

  3. Many thanks to Karin for this most enlightening and useful post and commentary which explains the core significance and importance of understanding how advocacy coalitions relate to each other.


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