Professor Barbara Prainsack MAE shares her experiences of the vital relationship between academia and policy.
About Barbara Prainsack
Barbara Prainsack is a Professor for Comparative Policy Analysis at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna and Professor of Sociology at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King’s College London. A political scientist, her expertise lies at the interface of policy and biomedicine and life science, and policy and forensics respectively. In 2017 Professor Prainsack was appointed by President Jean-Claude Juncker to be a Member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, advising the European Commission. She was elected to the Academia Europaea in 2019.
How does your background in political science influence your recent work?
“This is a very good question! I have both a Master’s and a doctoral degree in political science, but I have specialised in health, science and technology policy right from the start of my career. I have also worked at interdisciplinary departments most of my life. In that sense, I am fairly “undisciplined”! I think this has to do with the fact that I am more of a problem-oriented than a disciplinary thinker: When I sink my teeth into a research problem, I ask what types of evidence, expertise, and methods are needed to solve it, and then I try to get this evidence or expertise – regardless of what discipline(s) they come from. When I cannot acquire the expertise myself, then I collaborate with others that bring to the table what is needed. As a result, I have worked a lot with colleagues from disciplines such as sociology, ethics, anthropology, medicine, forensics, law, and science and technology studies over the years, and I greatly enjoy it. Having said this, my own thinking will always return to questions of power and governance and other concepts that are important in policy studies. It is actually an incredibly important subdiscipline, where all great themes of political sciences come together – power, democracy, and the rule of law. In this sense, my political science background has shaped my work in profound and fruitful ways. And I love teaching political science students because they are thinking in these terms as well!”
You are involved in policy-related work at national and European levels. How is this important to you?
“It is very important to me. I never wanted to be an academic stuck behind her desk. Through my policy-related work I get new ideas, and I am forced to think very practically – which does not come naturally to me! I am someone who can get lost in detail easily.
But there is also another part of the story. I think many academics struggle – if not permanently, then from time to time – with seeing how our work is meaningful. Unlike bakers, builders, gardeners, or hairdressers, who see the fruits of their labour if not immediately then relatively soon, many of us do not see the results of our research for a long time, or ever. Add to that a culture of overwork, which is becoming the norm in many countries, and you can see why so many academics burn out (not to mention the strain on those who are precariously employed). Some of us derive a lot of meaning from teaching, because of the human contact and the ability to see how we can make positive impacts. But in some countries the joy of teaching is tainted, due to excessive teaching administration and constant performance monitoring – of both students and of teachers! For me, doing policy-related work is one of the spaces where I do see the fruits of my labour, where I get to interact with interesting people who I do not normally encounter in my day-to-day work. I learn a lot from them that cannot be found in academic articles or books. This is my “safe space”, and I am lucky in that my university supports that I do this work.”
The AE Cardiff Hub led the coordination of an evidence review on Making sense of science for policy under conditions of complexity and uncertainty. Why is this report so important?
“I do not believe that the societal challenges of today are more complex and “wicked” than they used to be in the past. I believe that societal challenges have always been that way, but we have not described them as such. The “acid rain” problem was in no way less complex and systemic than today’s climate change is. In the past, when people held on to the believe that science is linear, orderly, and value-free, the problems to be solved were described in the same manner – as clearly delineated, localised problems that can be solved within the bounds of the nation state.
Today, there is increasing acknowledgement that policy problems are complex, include epistemic and other uncertainties, and that not every problem can be solved by science. It is for this reason that a report that discusses how, under such circumstances, science and policy can work together to produce knowledge to address societal challenges, is so important.”