This talk will analyse the dynamics of the scientific advisory committee, a neglected political institution whose importance became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. What I call the paradox of scientific advice is the inherent tension between our two basic expectations from scientific advice—neutrality and usefulness. To be useful, advisers must help governments set and attain their goals. Judgments about values and ends are necessary for useful advice, as are subjective judgments in the face of uncertainty and disagreement. This puts the committee in a double bind. If it tries to be more useful, this compromises the neutrality that is the source of its authority and legitimacy. If it tries to remain neutral, it sacrifices usefulness. I argue that this dilemma cannot be solved within the committee, but that broader democratic scrutiny could mitigate its force. Advisory committees, in turn, should be structured to facilitate this scrutiny.
Zeynep Pamuk is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. Her research examines the relationship between science and democracy, from the funding of science to its use in policymaking and new technologies. She is the author of Politics and Expertise: How to Use Science in a Democratic Society, forthcoming from Princeton University Press (November 2021).