Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dutch government will make better use of social sciences for better policies

A large part of policy is about influencing our behavior. A nice word for this is “governance” but sometimes you can also call it “manipulation”. Whatever you call it, it’s about narrowing down choices. There are two ways of doing this: either from inside our minds (by teaching us how to make the right choices) or from the outside (by framing choices differently). To put it simply: the government can change us or change our choices.

To do this, the Dutch government first needs to understand how we function psychologically and socially. So it recently asked three scientific councils for advice and received 5 recommendations. In a letter to Parliament (see this link) the Minister of Economic Affairs reacts to the recommendations and indicates how the government intends to use social sciences better for making better policy.

The first contribution of social sciences to better policy is that they show us evidence that we are not as rational as we think. An example: the majority of us spontaneously prefers to accept an offer of 100 euros today rather than wait a year and receive 200 euros (which amounts to refusing a return on investment of 100%!). This finding has consequences inter alia for our pension system because for citizens, the Minister writes, “saving money for their retirement on their own initiative often turns out to be challenging in practice”.

But how to influence citizens so that they make optimal choices without (severely) limiting their freedom? Part of the answer is “nudging”: influencing behavior by using incentives that are effective but that are still easy to avoid if the citizen wants to. Supermarkets use this technique by “using” our habits or natural tendencies for better sales, for example by putting products that yield most revenue in the most visible places. Like supermarkets the government can also take advantage of our natural tendencies when designing policies. To identify ways to do this, the Minister decided to make better use of social sciences in the five following ways:

  1. Capitalize more on expertise of social sciences with specific themes like “avoiding waste of food” and “standardizing financial products”
  2. Systemize this approach by integrating social scientific expertise in the policy design process
  3. Test draft policies empirically before implementation
  4. Be transparent about the use of nudging techniques to avoid the risk that it is perceived as manipulation
  5. Make sure that citizens can deal comfortably with (new) choice scenarios by empowering them with education (policies) and by simplifying choices

You might be surprised that policies for humans are not tested for their “optimal use of human nature” as a standard procedure. I think it is not so surprising for two reasons.

Firstly, human activity is largely organized in silos which are difficult to break down. It starts with the way we introduce ourselves: I’m a security or water policy person, I’m an urban sociologist, etc. Although the walls between policy and science are getting thinner, systematic cross-pollination for mutual optimization is still a dream. And although cross-pollination sounds nice it also represents a lot of extra work in the beginning, which doesn’t speed up the process of growing synergies.

Secondly – and this is related to social sciences –  human nature was not designed to break down the safe walls of our silos that provide us with security and identity. It’s not a natural thing to for humans to climb outside the safe box and walk into the unknown, because for evolutionary reasons our habits were designed to keep us in the box and to keep us busy imitating others (see this research). 

A good example to illustrate this is the phenomenon of yawning. It seems stupid behavior but during evolution it had the strong advantage of being contagious and making everybody go to sleep at the same time. That’s a pretty good recipe for keeping the herd safely together and protecting it from predators. But for effective policy making and climate change mitigation it’s better not to yawn and fall asleep collectively. We’d better wake up, put ourselves into question more systematically and prevent human nature from remaining the blind spot of our policies (see also this link).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

UN Science Advisory Board to Member States: "Help us to increase science's profile"

While the European Commission decided to scrap the post of Chief Scientific Advisor, the Secretary-General of the United Nations nominated 26 of them in a UN Scientific Avisory Board (SAB). It met for the first time in Berlin on 30-31 January 2014 and today in Paris at UNESCO, who co-chairs the SAB and hosts its secretariat.

The Boad is co-chaired by Zakri Abdul Hamid, the Sience Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia (twitter: @ZakriZAH). Malaysia will host the third SAB meeting end of May 2014, followed by the Russian Federation.

Hamid said that Ban Ki Moon had asked the SAB for 5 deliverables, meaning 5 advice reports:
  1. on how Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) can be used to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that the United Nations will define end of 2015
  2. to feed into the Global Report on Sustainable Development that the Secretary General will present to the United Nations end of 2015 when they will adopt the SDGs 
  3. on the necessary means to implement the SDGs (hot topic, because it's about money)
  4. on how to make use of the data revolution (explosion of data thanks to modern and mobile technology) to check whether development is actually improving
  5. on how to deal with climate change (to advise the international community which will try to come to a new climate agreement in Paris in December 2015).
In the day and a half the SAB Members met in Paris they discussed a work programme for 2015. Maria Ivanova, Co-Director of the Boston Center for Governance and Sustainability (twitter: @mivanova), mentioned 3 particular challenges they had defined:

  1. Should we engage other scientists and how?
  2. How can the scientific community define relevant reports?
  3. To improve the science-policy nexus we need to understand what this nexus is. How do we operationalize it?
With regard to the data revolution Susan Avery, Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spoke about the SAB's discussion about the UN Report "A World That Counts". Nowadays there are so many data available to monitor development that the challenge is no longer to find them but how to select them. And once selected, it requires sophisticated scientific models to aggregate them into insightful and relevant conclusions about how well a community or a region is developing. Key challenges are for example: interoperability of existing local observance systems for a completer overview, open access to data for researchers and privacy protection.

With regard to the implementation of development goals Tanya Abrahamse, CEO of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, mentioned several relevant questions such as: what kind of new human capital do we need to deliver? Where do we find the financial resources? How can we transfer technology from places where it is available to places where it is needed? And which existing or future partnerships could be helpful in this regard?

I asked how the SAB would capitalize on available expertise in UNESCO's scientific programmes on water, oceans, biodiversity, fundamental science and social sciences. The Director-General answered that the SAB's mandate was not to look into specific topics of a specific UN organization but rather to look at the broader systemic aspects of global and regional developmental challenges. It must provide the analytical overview necessary to overcome scientific and governmental silo's to identify sustainable solutions.

The Director-General added however that UNESCO could provide input for the SAB debates, and the members of the SAB seemed eager to engage with Member States and their scientific communities. To my delightment Maria Ivanova even turned the question around: "The question is not how we can help UNESCO to raise its scientific profile, but how can you Member States help us to raise the profile of science!"

Clearly, the first step towards this encounter between national science communities and Ban Ki Moon's Science Advisors has been taken. I encourage both scientific institutions, NGO's and governments to take the next ones. I am confident that two things will be very useful in this inclusive process of supporting the world's development agenda: social media and the short & easy updates the UN SAB will hopefully post on their website from time to time.

Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Kostas Axelos : inventer un langage pour exprimer ce qui arrive

Le jeudi 4 décembre 2014 j’étais témoin d’une belle célébration de la vie du philosophe grec Kostas Axelos (1924 – 2010) à l’Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) à Paris. L’occasion était importante : son épouse Madame Katherina Daskalaki, Ambassadeur de la Grèce auprès de l’UNESCO, a légué l’intégralité de l’œuvre de son mari à l’ENS. J’étais touché de voir ainsi la vie et l’œuvre d’un philosophe contemporain rejoindre pour toujours une institution qui en assurera désormais l’intégrité physique, l’analyse intellectuelle et surtout son accessibilité au plus grand nombre. Ce beau et important geste s’inscrit clairement dans le mandat de l’UNESCO, qui (i) protège le patrimoine documentaire en constituant une « Mémoire du Monde » et qui (ii) promeut le libre accès à l’information scientifique.

La vie et la pensée d'Axelos présentées par deux acteurs. A gauche le comédien de doublage Dominique Collignon-Maurin qui a fait vibrer le public en nous faisant vivre des fragments philosophiques, à l'image du questionnement fragmenté que nous, les hommes, sommes.

Kostas Axelos fut un penseur grec qui avait trouvé exil en France. Il n’a pas passé sa vie d’adulte chez lui mais ailleurs. L’effet de l’exil est qu’il vous éloigne de l’expérience-qui-va-de-soi et vous offre la sensibilité aiguë typique de l’étranger. Car loin de chez vous, vous êtes amené à approfondir quotidiennement les liens entre la vérité et l’errance. Petit à petit, vous vous éloignez de la pensée qui ne consiste qu’en réponses toutes faites. Vous finissez par ne plus exiger toujours la réponse qui clôture la question, puisque chaque réponse n’est qu’une question qui se cache.

Prenez la mesure de la tâche : il est hautement difficile de quitter le registre de la maîtrise ! Il faut être capable de mettre de côté sa fierté d’homme et accepter que la pensée ne parvienne plus à dissimuler sa propre impuissance. Le poète, lui, a moins de mal que le penseur à se lancer dans l’errance. Il cherche plus librement me semble-t-il, à coups de grandes envolées métaphoriques et imaginaires. Il n’a pas peur. Son bagage d’adulte ne l’empêche pas de dessiner comme un enfant. Le penseur en revanche semble prisonnier d’un exercice questionnant et répondant. Il semble entravé par le sérieux de la méthode, comme le mathématicien qui est obligé de tenir compte des rapports logiques entre les chiffres. A moins de changer radicalement de méthode, le penseur finit par se crisper.

Pour éviter la crispation il faut accepter que le monde est un jeu sans fin et sans destination. Axelos a tenté de penser ce « jeu du monde » et de nous en faire vivre la tracée. Il l’a même dessiné le jeu du monde:

Le "jeu du monde" conçu et dessiné par Kostas Axelos. Le plaisir philosophique n'est pas dégagé par le schéma lui-même, mais par la conversation riche et drôle que l'on pouvait avoir avec le philosophe de son vivant. 

Pour saisir et exprimer ce qui existe, il lui a fallu aussi inventer un langage qui ne fixe pas et qui ne cherche pas de solution définitive et parfaite. Lisez « Ce qui advient » pour vivre l’expérience particulière d’une telle pensée itinérante. Si vous aimez la randonnée et l’aventure, vous apprécierez. Elle se lit comme un journal intime lardé de confrontations et d’instants lumineux. Ce n’est pas un manuel ennuyeux qui met l’être « en système » comme on met des asperges en boîte. Ce n’est pas non plus un chemin autour d’un simulacre d’être mais une errance en plein cœur de l’existence et de la vie. Axelos a soigneusement évité d’aplatir l’énigme, le secret et l’impensé du monde pour les laisser vivre et s’exprimer à travers sa pensée. C’est une philosophie très personnelle, délicate et sensible.

Ce qui m’attire dans cette philosophie est sa modestie et sa profonde humanité. Vous découvrez le monde non pas comme dans une encyclopédie, mais à travers le vécu, les doutes et la sensibilité d’un homme. Vous traversez la rivière de l’ignorance, mais pas sur un pont haut au-dessus de la rivière. Vous la traversez plus bas en empruntant des stepping stones, comme lorsque vous pénétrez dans un jardin japonais où chaque pas est une initiation. Vous vivez en direct le défi philosophique que nous affrontons : le fait que l’homme est atteint par l’énigme et ne fait qu’élaborer sans cesse des réponses pour affronter l’énigme. Vous sentirez que même toutes les réponses du monde ne suffiront pas pour démanteler l’énigme. Il faut donc l’affronter autrement, par une réponse kaléidoscopique « où tout chavire ». Laissez-vous donc embarquer par une pensée météore, suspensive, sans fin ni destination.