We politicised science and scientised politics – is that a problem?


Welcome to our expert series on the post-COVID reset. That is, a reset along a more inclusive and smart path. The series introduces listeners to leading thinkers as they debate concrete policy options for such a recovery and take stock of the data that could (and should) inform these policy shifts. 


This is a 3-part podcast on trust in science, trust in expertise, and the slow demise of such.


Our expert today is Gil Eyal. He is a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, specializing in the sociology of expertise. His current focus is on unearthing the causes and the dimensions of the mistrust in experts and mistrust in expertise – issues that form the core of this podcast.


The host is UNESCO’s Iulia Sevciuc.


PART 1: What science, what trust 


This part talks critically about what trust in science is. Not all science is equal, neither is public trust in it. When science is dissected into expertise, “normal” science, or regulatory science, levels of trust vary considerably across these various dimensions. Regulatory science is what underpins policy making and acceptance of such, yet this is exactly what the public mistrusts the most due to its distributional effects (as often, there are winners and losers), the politicisation of science, and the scientisation of politics.


 PART 2: Why COVID-19 is a game-changer 


This second part discusses how the pandemic brought to the forefront so much of what usually happens in the background of scientific research, and spurred, often tense, polarised, and social media-bolstered public debate. Is it a healthy trend (part of checks and balances), or is such an over-exposure to/of science harmful to policymaking? One thing is clear – COVID-19 showed that the crisis of expertise is not the death of expertise. On the contrary, our dependence on expertise peaked during the pandemic, and this is exactly what strains public trust in it.


PART 3: What is to be done


This last part goes to the heart of what the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab does – connecting knowledge and data to policy on the ground. It points the knowledge communities to the current gaps in our understanding of mistrust in science and talks to the policymakers about concrete measures to boost public trust.


Have you seen?

Invest in knowledge, use it to rebuild
Recalibrate - our policies were too heavy on efficiency, too light on equity
From ivory towers to glass houses, science is transforming


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Gil Eyal is a Professor of Sociology and former chair of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. His work is concerned with understanding the dynamics shaping public trust in experts and science. In April 2023, Eyal joined other thought leaders at the UNESCO MOST Forum in Paris, where he joined other thought leaders from around the world. Watch his presentation here.


Iulia Sevciuc is UNESCO’s lead on inclusive policies and knowledge impact on policy. Prior to this appointment, Iulia worked with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on similar agendas.


The facts, ideas, and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.