Science meets public - Conflicts between political consulting and public perception


Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President
German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)
Berlin, Germany

Science-based political consulting must be independent and transparent; otherwise it would be lobbying. For this reason, the federal government in Germany operates various research institutes that are financed by tax money and that are intended to provide unbiased assessments and recommendations to the executive, to the legislature and to the general population. Conflicts inevitably arise, when the addressees of this scientific work deny the results or declare them invalid, in order to gain political advantages. Especially in the field of consumer health protection, public perception of assumed risks may differ from scientifically well-established facts. The reasons are manifold and range from tradition, mentality and psychology to everybody’s difficulty in grasping orders of magnitude or non-linear temporal developments. That means, humans invariably underestimate geometrical growth, and they usually have a limited perception of the difference between, for example, nanogram and picogram. These are challenges to risk communication which aims at building trust in scientific institutions so that consumers may follow their advice in times of crisis when time is scarce and decisions must necessarily be made on the basis of incomplete data. Using current examples, the talk will draw conclusions for a successful political consulting that takes risk perception into account.

Andreas Hensel