An anatomy of influence: science, politics and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1970-2011

Speaker: Prof Susan Owens # University of Cambridge

19th Oct 2015

15:30 - 17:00

Staff Room, 6th floor, Crystal Macmillan Building, George Square, University of Edinburgh

Expert advice is an indispensible—and sometimes controversial—feature of modern democracies, so it is hardly surprising that interest has grown in the practices and influence of advisors, as well as in the attributes of expertise. This seminar is based on an extended, in-depth study of one of Britain’s longest-standing environmental advisory bodies, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, first appointed under the Wilson government in 1970 and abolished by the incoming Coalition in 2011.

The Commission delivered thirty-three reports, covering a wide range of topics, and was seen as an influential body during a transformative period for environmental policy in Britain and beyond. It provides immensely rich material for analysis, and Susan Owens was herself a members of the Commission for ten years (1998–2008).

The seminar will explore three interrelated topics, drawing on a range of disciplinary traditions together with rich empirical evidence about the Commission’s role and influence. First it will explore the different ways in which relations between knowledge and policy (and science and politics) have been conceptualized, and the roles that have been ascribed to advisors. Within this broader context, it will then seek to identify the ‘circumstances of influence’, arguing that influence is almost always contingent, and might best be thought of in terms of a spectrum, or continuum, of different effects. Turning then to the question of what enables an advisory body to exert influence, the seminar will identify the most critical attributes of the Commission, including authority, disciplinary breadth, and a positioning at the intersection of personal, professional, epistemic and policy networks. Finally, it will reflect on what can be learnt from the ‘forensic’ analysis of an individual body about the interactions of knowledge and policy and the future of ‘good advice’.

Speaker bio: