Centro de Estudios Demográficos, Urbanos y Ambientales

Dr. José Luis Lezama
Profesor-Investigador / Professor -Researcher
Director del Seminario Interdisciplinario sobre Estudios Ambientales y del Desarrollo Sustentable / Director of the Interdisciplinary Seminar on Environmental and Sustainable Development


Reflections on the Relationship Between Scientific Knowledge, Social Sciences and the Decision-Making Process

Reflections on the Relationship Between Scientific Knowledge, Social Sciences and the Decision-Making Process
Dr. José Luis Lezama
El Colegio de México

I think the theme of this panel proposed by UNESCO-CLACSO had great importance in terms of the UNESCO-MOST Program, whose stated purpose is the management of social transformations. UNESCO representatives were the only ones who, during the session, discussed or attempted to address the issue. I think John Crawley was the one who got more to the point, trying to problematize the relationship of Scientific Knowledge, Technology and Social Transformation. My intention was to address this issue during my presentation, however due to a miscommunication, the moderator of the panel was not aware of my involvement so I could only sketch my ideas in five minutes as part of the audience. Because I believe that the issue is relevant to understanding and strengthen the role to be given to the social sciences in terms of its relation to decision-making in public policy, I want to convey an outline of the ideas that I prepared for the Panel UNESCO-CLACSO.
Based on what I understood that were the focus of this panel and what was discussed there, it seems important to emphasize two distinctions about what was discussed at the meeting and, particularly, about what John Crawley put forward: a) A first distinction has to do with what was called during the session as the use of knowledge and technology for social change, and to changes in other spheres of life, as a result of deliberate, conscious decision to seek operate these changes. That is, those changes that might be or could be proposed based on the understanding, the knowledge or the explanation of the social world, the social, economic and political, as well as their diagnosis and prognosis. b) A second distinction that is needed in the relationship knowledge, technology and social change refers to changes that occur in the social sphere, and also the natural world, resulting in the generation of knowledge and its application through technological advances taking place outside of the human will, as well as unintended or undesirable consequences. These changes may be even more significant, because they find fewer obstacles, less resistance to its implementation. An example that was mentioned in the latter, may be the introduction of contraceptive technology, which not only managed the birth control but caused an unintended effect: women control over their bodies, about their biological destiny and handed them a tremendous source of power. Another important aspect that is suggested but not developed in-UNESCO COMECSO panel is that of ethics and morality in matters of knowledge, technology and social change. In this sense I think it is also necessary to distinguish between two expressions: a) First of all we should talk about the ethical dimension in scientific practice. That is, whether or not science and technology are based on the values and principles of a given society. In modern Western society, all social practices must be guided by meta values such as respect for life, dignity, justice, human rights, freedom, the ability to choose, free will and others. That is, everything that has to do with the ought to issue. b) Second, when we stand in terms of public policy and decision making in their relationships with scientific knowledge. I think this is a relationship that is not as simple as it seems and should be problematized. This is crucial in order to understand this relation, its characteristics, dynamics, ambivalences and contradictions.
Ideally public policies should be based on the best scientific knowledge available, but in real life there are many factors that mediate the relationship between knowledge and public decisions. This reflection also seems relevant to understand the conditions, characteristics, scope and limits of our relationship (as social and natural scientists) with the decision-making process and with the management of social transformations. I will only list a few things that make the knowledge-policy relationship quite complex and problematic:
a) Public officials do not include science in decision-making just based on a whim, for ignorance or insensitivity. You cannot also draw a line between scientists and decision-makers as the good and the bad as it is common talk among some scientific communities.
b) There are times when public officials lack the will to make decisions. But I do not think this is not the main reason why decisions are not taken when knowledge is available. That is, this does not explain the "Non decision";
c) in other cases public officials are willing but lack the ability to mobilize forces, alliances, or other resources required for a particular decision to be taken;
d) at other times the economic, political, social and moral factors are of such magnitude that override the ability of decision makers and those who seek social changes;
e) Sometimes decision-makers use knowledge and reputed scientists to legitimize certain policies;
f) not all knowledge must be translated into public policy and sometimes it is not even desirable. Such is the case of eugenics, human cloning, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear energy, among others.
g) Public policy in its essence is not governed by knowledge. It is not the absence or presence of scientific knowledge what decides which decisions are taken. Power and social or community morals are more important elements that explain the decisions or non-decisions. To have control over critical factors such as economic, symbolic, political legitimacy, social mobilization, among others, play a more significant role than scientific knowledge in decision-making. At the level of the community, decisions tend to be based on the moral principles that prevail, regardless of the best scientific knowledge available. That is the case of sensitive issues such as abortion, eugenics, assisted suicide, human cloning, among others. I think that there is plenty of knowledge which decisions has never been translated into public policies because many social factors interfere it. Public policy decisions are influenced primarily by social morality and power. Social sciences should aim to understand the factors that mediate between scientific knowledge, public policies and social transformations.
I think in the attempt of MOST to include social sciences in relation to public policy on these issues, the academic discussion should be deepened, allowing us to put more realistically the possibilities of science in general and social science in particular in public policy, but also on the possibilities and limits of the inclusion of scientific knowledge in decision-making. I would like to propose that UNESCO-MOST Paris and MOST Mexico encourage the above mentioned discussion among people with different perspectives to make proposals for the inclusion of social sciences in the policy making process.

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