Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Accountability through the media - what is the value of science?

Two publications of political science that I recently had on my desk made me wonder where science stops and where investigative journalism begins - or vice versa.

In the first article "The Quint", Catherine Gegout investigates the secretive decision-making of Germany, France, the UK, Italy and the US in an informal working group before 2002. The group took decisions and more or less imposed them on the other Member States in the Council of Ministers without the possibility of them participating. Gegout interviewed multiple members of national bureaucracies under cover of anonymity and could slowly make sense of the informal body that Germany, France and the UK did not acknowledge at all and Italy and the US only mentioned in passing on the national websites.

The second article is Gijs Jan Brandsma's PhD thesis "Backstage Europe" in which the Dutch researcher brings light into the secretive comitology system of the European Union. National representatives are often not held accountable for decisions and yet they have a wide discretion in their actions:

(W)ithin only a few minutes the committee rushes through five official votes related to the points discussed before lunch, and the meeting closes instantly. Then Van Veen [name replaced] turns to me and smiles: ‘You saw that? We just spent 50 million here’ (p. 29).

Like Gegout, Brandsma based his research on personal interviews with decision-makers in national bureaucracies - under the cover of anonymity.

For me, these two papers provide a check on decision-makers in the way in which investigative journalism puts a check on them. But they are published in a scientific journal and will only reach the academic community and a few students. In consequence, this check is confined to an elite community. Will any policy changes result from these articles? Is that the intention of the scientist? Does he intend to saw the chair of a decision-maker, or does he see himself as the person providing the saw? And if he wants to actively saw, do policy-makers feel more threatened by revolting scientists than by revolting masses (i.e. classical journalism)?

You could argue that an important function of the European blogosphere is to find the little flaws in European policy-making which slip through the filter of the MSM, thereby providing an additional check on policy-makers. Science has the resources to provide the same.

But it is not enough to debate hot scientific findings in the scientific community. In the interest of public accountability, I would like those discussions to reach the media and the blogging community as well.

Update (30 January 2011): Don't miss the interesting take on the topic by Kosmopolito. And his add-on published here (3 March 2011).


  1. That is one of the reasons why I'm also trying, from time to time, to blog about new findings in EU-related political science publications, like I did with "Backstage Europe" or with the findings regarding the EU Council Secretariat.

    The advantage of us bloggers is that we follow the everyday debates and we have a good feeling when it is most useful to bring in science - the problem is rather that many of our colleagues have no clue about new media and that discussing science outside their own world seems to be very strange for them.

  2. Good point. We've got a foot in science and a foot in journalism. But bloggers cannot be journalists+++ while scientist fail to their own little bit of PR for their findings. After I mailed the researcher we talked about, he pointed out that Culley's figures for the Council staff were wrong - but by mail, rather than in the comments. In my view, a greater reflex in favor of "public education" could sometimes set in with those that provide really brilliant insights into the European Union.
    But then, this was also part of the mail: "Always good to see that people actually read my work." Which puts me back to the beginning. What is the point of investigation and of political science in general, if it doesn't try to provide a democratic check?
    Quite honestly, I don't have an answer.