Expert advice and environmental policy: the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-2011

Expert advice is an indispensible—and sometimes controversial—feature of modern democracies, so it is hardly surprising that interest has grown in the practices and influence of advisors, as well as in the attributes of expertise. This seminar is based on an extended, in-depth study of one of Britain’s longest-standing environmental advisory bodies, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, first appointed under the Wilson government in 1970 and abolished by the incoming Coalition in 2011.

During its lifetime, the Commission delivered thirty-three reports, covering an extensive range of topics. It was widely seen as an influential body during a transformative period for environmental policy and regulation. Its practices and impacts therefore offer rich material for analysis, and Susan Owens was herself a members of the Commission for ten years (1998–2008).

The seminar will explore three interrelated topics, drawing on a range of disciplinary traditions together with empirical evidence (from interviews, archives and observation) about the Commission’s role and influence. First, it will explore the different ways in which relations between knowledge and policy (and science and politics) have been conceptualized, and the roles that have been ascribed to advisors. Within this broader context, it will seek to identify the ‘circumstances of influence’, arguing that influence is always contingent and might best be thought of in terms of a spectrum, or continuum, of different effects. Turning then to the question of what enables an advisory body to have impact, the seminar will identify the most critical attributes of the Commission, including authority, disciplinary breadth, and a positioning at the intersection of personal, professional, epistemic and policy networks. Finally, it will reflect on what the ‘forensic’ analysis of an individual body can tell us about the interactions of knowledge and policy, and the project of ‘good advice’.