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Contested science

24 April 2014
Public controversies about science and policy
In the study 'Contested Science', we look at six recent controversies and attempts to answer the following questions: In what way do policymakers call in scientific expertise? How do other parties (local residents, local authorities, civil society organisations) respond? Is there a lack of trust in science in such cases? And what lessons can we learn from the way that policymakers and scientists have dealt with public controversies?




‘Research shows…’ is an all-too-common turn of phrase in policy reports and political debate.These two small words instil great confidence: they imply that policy-making rests on solid grounds, that it is based on objective facts.

But opinions may be divided about the facts. The Netherlands has witnessed repeated controversies in recent years concerning the way in which policymakers use science. The controversies have concerned such divisive issues as the underground storage of carbon dioxide, exploratory drilling for shale gas, and vaccinations against cervical cancer.

In this study, we review six recent public controversies in the Netherlands about evidencebased policy in order to consider the prerequisites for trustworthy science. In doing so, we aim to gain a better understanding of why, in these particular cases, the use of scientific evidence in policymaking led to public disquiet. We also explore what is needed to win public support for evidence-based policy.

  • The key questions we pose are the following:
  • When and how do policymakers call on scientific expertise?
  • How do other parties respond (local residents, civil society organisations, local authorities, and experts who have reached differing conclusions)?
  • What role does scientific evidence play in allaying controversy?
  • To what extent does public trust in science or distrust of science play a role?
  • And finally, what lessons can we learn from the way that scientists and policymakers have dealt with public controversies?

This study is intended mainly to help policymakers understand what they need to do to generate public support for evidence-based policy, and to give scientists and policymakers guidelines for dealing more effectively with public opposition. Scientists and policymakers are thus the main target groups of this study.


Preferred citation:
Blankesteijn M., G. Munnichs & L. van Drooge, Contested science - Public controversies about science and policy. The Hague, Rathenau Instituut 2014