Crisis Response and the Standing of Expert Knowledge

by Steve Vanderheiden
CSTPR Core Faculty and Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies

Photo above: A nurse wears protective gear at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Seattle on March 17, 2020. Photo: Brian Snyder, Reuters.

As I write this, the University of Colorado is starting its first week of fully online teaching and learning as part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. This and other social distancing efforts aim to “flatten the curve” of new infections in order to mitigate impacts on an overwhelmed health care system and buy time for that system to build the capacity it needs to treat those likely to be made seriously ill by the virus. Italy and Spain are in lockdown, restaurants and other facilities across the country have been closed, and financial markets are in freefall as global commerce grinds to a halt. We are now living in one of those times that more attentive societies anticipate and for which successful societies prepare.

Thus far, our social response might charitably be described as mixed.  Many states and localities have been proactive in efforts to contain the virus and respond to the needs of those least able to withstand weeks of school closures and mandatory social distancing. The Boulder Valley YMCA is providing emergency day care for the children of first responders, medical personnel, and parents that live paycheck-to-paycheck and cannot afford to take leave from work, and BVSD is providing food for families whose children can no longer access it through school cafeterias. With minimal resources from or coordination by the federal government, states have ramped up their own pandemic response capacities in an effort to fill the huge void left by an inept and broken government In Washington DC.

My aim here is not to detail the full scope and scale of the federal government’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic, but as a professional political scientist neither can I refrain from making a few critical observations about it. Testing capacity remains abysmally low, the result of well-documented problems that will offer a cautionary tale about the perils of poor political judgment and politicized interference in science policy. The president’s response has been so inept and counterproductive that it has shaken even his most ardent supporters, along with financial markets, which no previous crisis could manage. Throughout his public appearances, he has appeared to be pathologically unable to avoid spreading misinformation about the virus or to take any kind of responsibility for his administration’s failure to prepare (or dismantling of pandemic preparations put in place before his presidency) for this crisis. The absence of even basic administrative competence throughout the executive branch has been on full display, with the need for expert knowledge and guidance made painfully evident.

The postmortem of American social and political analysis that inquires into what led to our being so catastrophically unprepared before the outbreak, as well as during its first two months, will be critical to our identifying failures, and should serve to point the way to being better prepared for such crises in the future. Crises like this one expose our vulnerabilities as a society, giving us the opportunity to learn from and correct our failures. Some of this analysis has already begun, with early diagnoses focusing upon the president’s personal pathologies and those associated with his governing style.

Certainly, these tell an important part of the story. A chief executive that relies upon ideological litmus tests and demands for personal loyalty rather than administrative competence as criteria for key appointments would predictably result in an executive branch that is less effective in advancing its routine mission, with very low capacity to respond to a genuine crisis. One that subscribes to and occasionally perpetuates fringe conspiracy theories but attacks the mainstream media and dismisses mainstream science as unreliable sources of information is unlikely to be circumspect enough to identity his own errors, much less take steps to correct them. Indeed, a president that has literally and metaphorically sought to wall off the country from the world and in so doing exclude and malign those blamed for its problems is unlikely to be prepared for a virus that disembarks at airports and resists the discursive weapons that he maintains in his arsenal. However, focusing on Trump’s shortcomings as a leader or the missteps of his administration can obscure a more pervasive malaise that predates his presidency but may also have contributed to the paucity of competent federal government responses to the current pandemic: the diminished standing of expert knowledge in politics.

While this president surely regards any other source of knowledge or information as a threat to his authority, the marginalization of some of those sources has been ongoing for decades. Observers have long decried the declining influence of expertise of various kinds in government actions, institutions, and policies. Indeed, I’ve previously written in this forum about the silencing of experts in critical policy areas and CU’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has long served as an advocate for effective translation of science into policy-relevant assessment and guidance. To fully understand why the federal government’s pandemic response failed so badly despite the prodding of recent H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks, we must look to the ways in which expert knowledge has been valued or devalued, how this has affected its standing and influence in policy formation (including emergency preparedness) and how these in turn might help to account for some of the failures and deficits noted above.

A reasonable starting point might involve examination of federal support for scientific research, hypothesizing that this should correlate with the standing of expertise in politics and society. But if the standing of expertise in policy-making has been in a decades-long decline—perhaps punctuated by occasional reversals based on party control of government in Washington but nonetheless on a marked long-term decline from its post-Sputnik peak —this trend would not appear to correspond with trends in science agency research grant budgets. Three years into an administration that has in most ways been overtly hostile to science, and thanks to effective science advocacy within and beyond the U.S. Congress, research funding budgets at the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science will all see healthy increases in 2020, despite several months of deadlock.[1] We’re continuing to support scientific research, but making less use of it and in some cases seeking to distance ourselves as a society from some of what we learn from it. Why is this?

Looking deeper, perhaps the declining standing of expert knowledge in policy is a product not of how much overall research is funded, but what kinds of research get funded. Perhaps the declining standing of expertise in state policy formation is a function of declining state support for the kinds of knowledge creation that might in a more evidence-based political system provide a counterweight to the whims of policymakers that also set science research funding budgets. Here, we might postulate that less policy-relevant science would flourish as the standing of expertise in policy declines, whether to contain any epistemic authority that it creates within a domain where its influence on policy is rare and ineffective or to punish those researchers whose work appears to be too policy-relevant for policymakers to control or dismiss. Perhaps the epistemic authority of expert knowledge poses a potential threat to the political authority of policymakers when the two meet in a single domain, as when the research informs the design or evaluation of policy or institutions, but not otherwise. Here, a recent study about how climate research funds have been allocated across different fields of knowledge production is enlightening.

Analyzing data from 4.3 million research grants for climate research from 333 donors between 1950 and 2021, Overland and Sovacool found that only 0.12 percent of the $1.3 trillion spent to support climate went toward social science research on climate mitigation, which is perhaps the most urgent and policy-relevant problem related to climate change. Overall, the natural and technical sciences received nearly eight times the support as the social sciences over the past three decades, despite “one of the most urgent unsolved puzzles” being fundamentally social scientific in nature – i.e. “how to get people to act on what they know, that is to say, how to alter society to mitigate climate change.”[2] Whether funds for research into climate policy and governance have been restricted in order to minimize the standing of experts that might challenge the authority of policymakers that are disinclined to take action on climate change, or because that decline in standing resulted from being starved of research funding, the gap between government funding of knowledge that can readily be translated into policy guidance and that which cannot is striking, and consistent with funding agencies seeking to avoid the wrath of politicians.

Such wrath and its impacts upon research funding—and with it, entire areas of research—has been seen before. In 2013, longtime critic of the NSF political science program Tom Coburn (R-OK) attached an amendment to funding legislation to ban any use of research funds unless the program director could certify in writing that the project would be “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States,” effectively killing the $10 million political science program. Among the ideological reasons for the program’s elimination was that it had supported social science research into climate impacts and mitigation, angering some legislators that viewed such research as posing an obstacle to their attempts to avoid taking action to control greenhouse emissions. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who had authored a bill to defund the program the previous year, specifically cited the program’s grant of “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis” in his rationale.[3]  Science can be more or less threatening to incumbent politicians, with more policy-relevant research posing a greater potential threat than does research that has no specific implications for policy. Research that is “safe” from threats like those made against the political science program may well be more attractive from a funding agency management perspective, but it may also contribute toward the declining status of the enterprise of science insofar it fails to engage contemporary public problems. Its marginalization from state decision-making during times of emergency may be the most visible consequence, but the sidelining and silencing of experts and suppression of expert knowledge has been ongoing for decades.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the status of various fields of knowledge creation (a term that I prefer for reasons to be explained forthwith) within the university. Those of us that recall taking philosophy of science as part of our social science methods training may cringe when asked whether our research should be categorized as “science,” recalling bitter debates between positivists and their critics but also recognizing what is often at stake in the question for our professional lives. In the academy, it pays to at least emulate the natural sciences, with a hierarchy of faculty salaries and research funding availability within and among social science departments often tracking the extent to which one’s research program embraces methodologies shared with the natural sciences, like the quantitative analysis of large data sets. Scholars utilizing critical and normative methodologies to study the same subjects tend as a result to find themselves low in this hierarchy, near their colleagues in the humanities that share their distance from science as conventionally defined but nonetheless engage in knowledge-creation. Not all “science” is policy-relevant or socially useful in an instrumental sense (nor should it be), and some knowledge that serves to better equip society to understand and address its problems occurs outside of STEM fields. We all stand in solidarity against proposals to cut research funding as an attack on knowledge-creation and the social value of university research, but we don’t all benefit when those attacks are repelled.

If a society’s values can be gleaned from what forms of knowledge-creation it decides or declines to support, we might infer that the contemporary United States continues to value many forms of knowledge of the natural and physical world (if perhaps less than knowledge with more commercial potential), cares relatively less to know how the social and political worlds work or fail to do so, and cares still less for the humanistic disciplines that eschew the scientific method altogether. As for questions of equity or justice, or generally the sort of critical inquiry that is designed to highlight our failings so that we might correct them, the almost complete absence of government research funding support for such research suggests that we value these very little. Apart from intellectual prejudices about whether these count as knowledge at all, their persistent questioning and criticism are often viewed as a nuisance to those making research funding decisions at the legislative level. Indeed, the NSF political science program was viewed as a nuisance and accordingly cut, despite providing little or no support to scholars engaging in critical or normative research. Society might value knowledge about the wider world but does not value (or even actively disvalues) knowledge about itself and its shortcomings.

The university’s values might be inferred in a similar way. The relative standing of its various knowledge areas can be discerned by their budget lines and this hierarchy has driven and is further entrenched with the reorganization of the College of Arts and Sciences into separate and more autonomous colleges of science, social science, and arts and humanities. The recent decision to shutter CSTPR likewise reveals the relative standing of the social and natural sciences on campus, which is itself a product of how knowledge-creation is valued and funded by the state and society. While the university has only a limited capacity to assert the value of knowledge creation areas that have not been valued by funding agencies, it has largely accepted and reinforced this hierarchy rather than challenging or flattening it.

As we watch with dismay at how damaging the intentional marginalization of expert knowledge has been in the nation’s initial response to COVID-19, we might consider how best to restore the standing of those with the knowledge and expertise to help. We might start with the university, where much of our knowledge and expertise originates, and look for sources of obstruction or diminution. As we continue to follow current events with the realization that some of the errors that have already been committed or are committed in the future could have been avoided if relevant fields of knowledge-creation been properly valued and their contributions constructively utilized, we might wonder how to better appreciate their value, even if as a kind of nuisance. We must of course remain cognizant of elevating the standing and influence of such experts beyond what prudence or democratic norms allow, but this lies within the intellectual wheelhouse of areas of expertise that have been chronically undervalued and so gives us more reason to be inclusive of critical and normative methodologies in the process.

In looking back to diagnose what failed and what worked in our response to this crisis so that we can more intelligently look ahead to the next one, we might recall the story of Socrates in Plato’s Apology. Put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was unafraid to speak truth to power, casting his role in that society as that of a “gadfly” whose critical role was to irritate others out of complacency. As he declares at the end of his trial, “you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping” and so be inclined to eliminate the nuisance that disturbs your slumber, but the expert that provides evidence-based crisis preparation or response guidance as well as the researcher that inquires into how to improve our political institutions should be appreciated for the discomfort that they occasionally cause given their value to society in performing this critical function, and be supported as such. (Those familiar with the story know that Socrates made this very argument at his trial, angering his listeners and resulting in his being sentenced to death, but we’ll leave that part aside here.) Among the more important reasons for public support of knowledge-creation is this ability for society to engage in self-criticism—or to paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined society is not worth having—which is a prerequisite to self-correction and thus an imperative that is particularly urgent given our failings in the present crisis and our need to learn from them.

[1] Jeffrey Mervis and David Malakoff, “Final Spending Bill is Kind to U.S. research,” Science (online edition), 16 December 2019.

[2] Indra Overland and Benjamin K. Sovacool, “The Misallocation of Climate Research Funding,” Energy Research & Social Science 62 (2020).

[3] Timothy Noah, “Political Science in the Crosshairs,” The New Republic, 22 March 2013.

This entry was posted in Commentaries. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are moderated and must be approved to become visible to the public. Please do not submit your comment twice.