What is research’s responsibility in times of radical uncertainty?

In contemporary societies we can observe a growing tension when it comes to the relation between citizens and experts. On the one hand, the public is more and more dependent on various forms of expertise in order to address urgent problems – such as manmade climate change or loss of biodiversity. On the other hand, there are legitimate worries about conflicts of interests in the dissemination of new knowledge; researchers see themselves under attack not only from populists, but also from those who rightly criticize the blind spots of traditional forms of expertise.

Thus, the role of experts in society needs to be urgently reconsidered and reconfigured. How far-reaching are their responsibilities when it comes to informing, and interacting with, citizens? What is their role vis-à-vis politics? And how does institutional responsibility differ from individual responsibility when trying to reach certainties in such uncertain times?

“Research & Responsibility”, a workshop hosted by THE NEW INSTITUTE in collaboration with Lisa Herzog, discussed, among other things, these questions. The virtual conference was held on October 22-23 and brought together international scholars from various disciplines, ranging from moral philosophy to neurosciences, from social sciences to virology.

‘In the current situation, it is our responsibility to produce research results that society understands’, said Christian Drosten, virologist with Charité Berlin whose research focus is on novel viruses and who came to national prominence as an expert on the implications and actions required to combat the Covid-outbreak in Germany. ‘When advising politicians on how to deal with the pandemic it is also our responsibility to not mix advice and opinions – we all might have our personal views, but we need to leave those out when we talk to politicians. Importantly, this also means that we define and clearly communicate the limits of our knowledge.’

Wolf Singer, renowned neurophysiologist at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, reinforced this point, stating that ‘all scientific insights are preliminary and that there are principal limits to predict the future.’ He concluded that it is research’s responsibility to remain resilient to its inherent conundrum that every new insight posits new questions, that research almost certainly produces uncertainties: ‘If we wish to stick to a rational strategy of evidence-based problem-solving, we have to learn to endure this insecurity.’

Anna Alexandrova, researching the Philosophy of the Social Sciences at the University of Cambridge and leading a project team to investigate the question of “Expertise Under Pressure” with the support of the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation (, made a more applied argument: ‘If there is one responsibility that social scientists and, in particular, economists have, it is to measure things that matter.’ She went on to claim that researchers need to define meaningful measures of well-being, ideally, developing measurements together with the stakeholders involved rather than just superimposing them. Hence, she made the case for a collaborative responsibility in academia – taking into account societal desires when designing research.

The insights produced at the “Research & Responsibility” workshop will feature in THE NEW INSTITUTE’s research agenda and program design.

In addition to Christian Drosten, Wolf Singer and Anna Alexandrova, the following speakers contributed to the “Research & Responsibility” workshop: Song Wook Yi, Hanyang University (Korea); Maria Paula Meneses, Universidade de Coimbra (Portugal); Heather Douglas, Michigan State University (USA); Charbel El Hani, Universidade Federal da Bahia (Brazil); Alex Broadbent, University of Johannesburg (South Africa); Geert Keil, Humboldt University Berlin (Germany); Lutz Kipp, Kiel University (Germany); Bernd Engler, Tübingen University (Germany); Heyo Krömer, Charité Berlin (Germany)

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