COVID-19 and the Paradox of Scientific Advice
By Zeynep Pamuk, University of California, San Diego
The scientific advisory committee is a neglected political institution whose importance became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. What I call “the paradox of scientific advice” consists in that the two basic expectations from scientific advisory committees—neutrality and usefulness—are inherently in tension. To be useful, advisers must help governments set and attain their goals. Judgments about values and ends are necessary for useful advice, as are subjective judgments in the face of uncertainty and disagreement. This puts the committee in a double bind: if it tries to be more useful, it compromises the neutrality that is the source of its authority and legitimacy; if it tries to remain neutral, it sacrifices usefulness. I argue that this dilemma cannot be solved within the committee but that broader democratic scrutiny could mitigate its force. Advisory committees, in turn, should be structured to facilitate this scrutiny.