HomeContentious Science, Tricky Politics : Experts and Scientists in Controversial Policy Debates in Europe and North America

HomeContentious Science, Tricky Politics : Experts and Scientists in Controversial Policy Debates in Europe and North America

*  *  *

Published on Friday, September 17, 2021


This conference, conceived and organized before the events of this last year, seeks to interrogate the uncomfortable, confusing, and consequential intersection of experts and politics of which the Covid-19 crisis is only the latest dramatic example.



Experts have always provoked political and cultural ripples. In 2020, however, those ripples grew to the size of overwhelming waves as people across the globe scrambled to react to the threat of a deadly epidemic. Whether to ride those waves to new heights of popular appeal or swim against them, politicians and scientists alike are navigating very choppy water. For example, U.S. President Joseph Biden has stated that under his administration, “we are letting science speak again.” Demonstrating this commitment, Biden has elevated the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to a Cabinet-level position and has publicly undone Trump-era directives restricting the public speech of scientists working for federal agencies. At the same time, other leaders, such as French President, Emmanuel Macron, have alternated between praising and bemoaning the advice of the scientific committees they themselves created to combat the epidemic. Their political rivals of all stripes are walking a fine rhetorical line between denouncing a government of experts against the popular will on the one hand and the dangers of anti-scientific conspiracy theories on the other.

This conference, conceived and organized before the events of this last year, seeks to interrogate the uncomfortable, confusing, and consequential intersection of experts and politics of which the Covid-19 crisis is only the latest dramatic example.

Decision-makers—and those who pressure them—confront technical, ethical, and political uncertainty when navigating controversial issues. They often seek information they hope will provide guidance or authority. But what kinds of knowledge influence them to make a decision about questions whose very nature is a source of disagreement? Despite their classification as either primarily technical or purely moral, some social problems—especially those about the meaning, impact, or survival of human life—require policymakers to negotiate contested scientific and ethical terrain. Centering this question, this conference examines how and why “experts,” broadly defined, as well as activists and policymakers interact and influence each other as they work to address contested, high-stakes issues in Europe and North America.

It invites scholars who analyze policymaking across domains and issues in which decision-makers negotiate contested scientific and ethical terrain. Examples include but are not limited to climate change, public health, sexuality and gender-based rights claims, data surveillance, social justice and human rights, as well as fiscal policy. Current research tends to analyze some issues, such as climate change, from the angle of “politicized science” (McCright and Dunlap, 2011) and to analyze others, including the rights of gender and sexual minorities, from the angle of “morality politics” (Engeli et al., 2012). This conference seeks to start a conversation that aims to overcome that theoretical divide. By analyzing the interactions between experts, activists, and policymakers across a range of issues, it strives to bring to light the ways in which scientific and moral “authority” may undergird all of them.

The relationships between experts, policymakers, and activists are important because they can transform previously ignored phenomena into urgent social problems that draw the critical scrutiny of media, policymakers, and the public (Eyal, 2013; Tilly and Tarrow, 2007; Zippel, 2006). They shape how the public and policymakers perceive, say, the threat of climate change, the safety of vaccines, or the necessity to take gender-based violence seriously. We know that once an issue is identified, advocates on either side continue to work with experts to produce information to convince policymakers (Stone, 2011). Scientific information can be especially effective—particularly in courts—because it can withstand critical scrutiny and project legitimacy (Jasanoff, 2009). For this reason, social movements invest in academic allies (Armstrong and Bernstein, 2008). This “triangular” relationship (Paternotte and Kollman, 2013) between activists, experts, and policymakers creates “epistemic communities” (Smirnova and Yachin, 2015) among people with the same political or intellectual outlook. Thus, for instance, climatologists and environmentalists in favor of carbon restrictions must compete against scientists and their political allies who deny that humans cause climate change. Some suggest that the capacity of these epistemic communities to push their agendas depends on the power they wield within their respective academic and political fields (Fligstein and McAdam, 2012). Specifically, decision-makers may be more likely to believe experts whose claims represent their disciplinary consensus. Revealing the significance of this effect, activists try to influence scientific knowledge production so they can claim that research supports their goals (Jasanoff, 2004). In addition, well-financed NGOs and think tanks (Béland and Cox, 2010) allow epistemic communities to pool their resources despite marginalization they otherwise might face (Stambolis-Ruhstorfer 2020). Indeed, perhaps because of such resources, although climate change doubting scientists are a minority, they continue to have a strong voice in public debates (Dunlap and Jacques, 2013). Yet, these networks also confront policymaking venues with different rules about the role of expertise, such as courts and legislatures, which vary according to national and transnational politic contexts. Therefore, work that is attentive to the contentious role of experts within their historical and institutional contexts in Europe and North America allows for especially fruitful insights (Beyers and Braun, 2014; Ruzza, 2004; Thornton et al., 2012; Woll, 2006).


  • Wednesday, 20th to Friday, 22nd October 2021

Maisons des suds : 12, Esplanade des Antilles 33607, Pessac France

The conference will be held in person and online/hybrid format will be available for attendees and presenters unable to travel to Bordeaux.


Wednesday 20 October

  • 13:30: Welcome
  • 14h00: Conference Introduction
  • 14h15-15h40: Keynote 1 by Maya Goldenberg – Public Trust in Policy-Relevant Science

Coffee break

16h00-18h00: Panel 1 – Evidencing

(Discussant: Nicolas Labarre)

  • Caught the Bug or Born This Way? Viral and Lineal Transmission of Research Paradigms among Scientists - Jeffrey Lockhart, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan
  • Crafting the Message: The Changing Scripts of Presidential Leadership - Bo Yun Park, Harvard University (Cambridge)
  • Data science's motives: methods, profits, and ideas for doing things differently - Philipp Brandt, Sciences Po/CSO
  • Policy-Based Evidence: Economic Expertise in the Fragmented Welfare State, Zachary Griffen, Department of Sociology, University of California Los Angeles

Thursday 21 October

Welcome coffee

10h00-12h00: Panel 2 – Authorizing

(Discussant: Béatrice Collignon)

  • Breastfeeding, bodily autonomy, and Unicef's “call to action” - Kate Goldie Townsend, University of Exeter, Politics Department
  • Excel-sheet feminism in leftist activism and in policy-making – Social justice claims with intersectionality between theory and politics - Eszter Kováts, Eötvös Loránd University - Gergely Csányi, University of Pécs
  • The Politics of “Site Testing”: Astronomy, Land and Hawaiian Sovereignty since the 1950s - Pascal Marichalar, CNRS
  • “Axiologic neutrality” at the French state's service? Activist academics, media opportunism and State racism - Christelle Rabier, Centre de recherche, médecine, sciences, santé, santé mentale, société (Cermes3)

12h00-14h00: Lunch Break

  • 14h00-15h15: Keynote 2 by Mieke VerlooCritical Knowledge production and democracy: current struggles in hostile times

Coffee break

15h45-17h30: Panel 3 – Circulating between Sex and Science

(Discussant: Cédric Brun)

  • From HIV/AIDs Infrastructure to COVID-19 Rapid Response: The Reconfiguration of Public Health Expertise During Crisis - Claire Decoteau, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Constructing "Global" Standards in Gender-Affirming Healthcare: Thailand and the USA - Alyssa Lynne, Northwestern University
  • Deficits, Disorders, and Risks: Where is the Pleasure in Sexual Health Research? - B. Ethan M. Coston, Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Gender Studies: Science from the West, for the West? - Eszter Kováts, Eötvös Loránd University

Friday 22 October

Welcome coffee

10h00-12h00: Panel 4 – Empowering Controversies

(Discussant: Michael Stambolis- Ruhstorfer)

  • Gender Sensitive Science for International Development? Navigating Hierarchies, Ignorance and Epistemological Tensions in GCRF Projects - Rosalind Cavaghan, Independent Scholar
  • Origine de la COVID-19 : une controverse entre sciences et géopolitique - Fabien Colombo, Université Bordeaux Montaigne - José Halloy, Université de Paris
  • WHO HAS HAD THE POWER? Opinion based vs evidence informed decision making in Slovakia´s Lesson Learned from Pandemic COVID – 19 - Michaela Dénešová, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University Slovakia - Andrea Figulová, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University Slovakia
  • Uncertain knowledge. The production of ignorance in the medicalization of intersex people in France - Michal Raz, Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les enjeux sociaux

12h00-14h00: Lunch Break

14h00-15h15: Keynote 3 by Gil EyalMistrust in numbers: regulatory science,trans-science and the crisis of expertise

Coffee break

15h45-17h00: Panel 5 – Arguing climate change

(Discussant: Stéphanie Bonnefille)

  • Experts and the Politicization of Climate Change in Congress. A Case Study of the Environmental Protection Agency (1983-2015). - Loredana Loy, Department of Sociology, Cornell University
  • Se forger un avis et l'arbitrage dans l'administration publique régionale de Nouvelle-Aquitaine : deux processus qui gèrent les injonctions contradictoires du changement climatique ? - Camille Jonchères, Inrae
  • Stampeding Experts, Honest Skeptics, and American Families: Character Work in the 'Climate Wars' - Olivia Steiert, The New School for Social Research

17h00-17h30: Scientific summary (Discussant: David Demortain)

Program Committee (Organizers)

  • Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, Université Bordeaux Montaigne / CLIMAS
  • Marie Coris, Université de Bordeaux / GREThA
  • Béatrice Collignon / PASSAGES
  • Cédric Brun / SPH
  • Nicolas Labarre, Université Bordeaux Montaigne / CLIMAS
  • Stéphanie Bonnefille, Université Bordeaux Montaigne / CLIMAS  



Le colloque est au format hybride : présentiel et distanciel.

L'inscription est payante et les participants devront présenter un pass sanitaire valide à l'entrée.


Armstrong, E.A., Bernstein, M., 2008. Culture, Power, and Institutions: A Multi-Institutional Politics Approach to Social Movements. Sociological Theory 26, 74–99.

Béland, D., Cox, R.H. (Eds.), 2010. Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Beyers, J., Braun, C., 2014. Ties that count : explaining interest group access to policymakers. Journal of public policy 34, 93–121.

Dunlap, R.E., Jacques, P.J., 2013. Climate Change Denial Books and Conservative Think Tanks: Exploring the Connection. American Behavioral Scientist 57, 699–731.

Engeli, I., Green-Pedersen, C., Thorup Larsen, L. (Eds.), 2012. Morality Politics in Western Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Eyal, G., 2013. For a Sociology of Expertise: The Social Origins of the Autism Epidemic. American Journal of Sociology 118, 863–907.

Fligstein, N., McAdam, D., 2012. A Theory of Fields. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Jasanoff, S., 2009. Science at the Bar: Law, Science, and Technology in America. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Jasanoff, S. (Ed.), 2004. States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and the Social Order. Routledge, New York.

McCright, A.M., Dunlap, R.E., 2011. The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001–2010. Sociological Quarterly 52, 155–194.

Paternotte, D., Kollman, K., 2013. Regulating intimate relationships in the European polity: same-sex unions and policy convergence. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 20, 510–533.

Ruzza, C., 2004. Europe and Civil Society: Movement Coalitions and European Governance. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.

Smirnova, M.Y., Yachin, S.Y., 2015. Epistemic Communities and Epistemic Operating Mode. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 5, 646–650.

Stone, D., 2011. Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making, Third Edition. ed. W. W. Norton & Company.

Thornton, P.H., Ocasio, W., Lounsbury, M., 2012. The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure, and Process. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Tilly, C., Tarrow, S.G., 2007. Contentious politics. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

Woll, D.C., 2006. Lobbying in the European Union: From sui generis to a comparative perspective. Journal of European Public Policy 13, 456–469.

Zippel, K.S., 2006. The Politics of Sexual Harassment: A Comparative Study of the United States, The European Union, and Germany. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.


  • Maison des Suds - 12 Esplanade des Antilles
    Pessac, France (33607)

Event attendance modalities

Hybrid event (on site and online)


  • Wednesday, October 20, 2021
  • Thursday, October 21, 2021
  • Friday, October 22, 2021


  • sociology, covid-19, expert, scientist, science, politics, controversial, policy, europe, north america, sociologie, scientifique, politique, controversé, controverse, amérique du nord


  • Bastien Poinset
    courriel : bastien [dot] poinset [at] etu [dot] u-bordeaux-montaigne [dot] fr

Information source

  • Bastien Poinset
    courriel : bastien [dot] poinset [at] etu [dot] u-bordeaux-montaigne [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Contentious Science, Tricky Politics : Experts and Scientists in Controversial Policy Debates in Europe and North America », Conference, symposium, Calenda, Published on Friday, September 17, 2021, https://doi.org/10.58079/1774

Archive this announcement

  • Google Agenda
  • iCal
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search