About the Conference

The economic, social and environmental governance challenges facing contemporary societies are growing in severity, scope and complexity; yet trust in experts and established institutions is in decline. The role and legitimacy of expertise in policymaking is increasingly being called into question.

Recently, populist and anti-globalisation movements in a number of countries, and on both ‘right’ and ‘left’, have achieved electoral success, in part by playing on these doubts and by rejecting the claims of experts to specialised knowledge and authority. These sentiments are even evident among many mainstream politicians. ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ was the view of leading UK politician Michael Gove in 2016. US President Donald Trump has called global warming ‘bullshit’ and a ‘Chinese hoax’. In Australia we have seen some parliamentarians assert that vaccination causes autism, or that climate change is a fabrication, despite strong evidence to the contrary. We have seen a special commissioner appointed to investigate ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ despite no expert believing such a syndrome exists.

It is time to think anew, and self-critically, about our assumptions regarding experts and expertise. In this two-day conference our focus is on policymaking which is controversial, contested and complex; which is sociotechnical and not simply technical or purely scientific. In particular, we will explore three themes and how they manifest in practical policymaking.

Knowledge and Society

What constitutes scientific and social scientific expertise? How is it produced and reproduced? And what knowledge/s and technologies of expertise are deployed? When and why do experts get it wrong?

When it comes to making policy, what assumptions and problem-framings are prevalent? Which experts and what expertise is recruited? And how are knowledge gaps and ignorance handled?

Policy in Practice

What does the ‘crisis of expertise’ mean for thinking and re-thinking policymaking in practice? Is the ‘crisis of expertise’ a problem of democracy or does it go beyond this? What evidence counts (e.g. what value does ‘big data’ provide)? How should we think about the ‘public’ of public policy?

How is expert knowledge communicated? What is the role of science advisors, in-government experts, public and experiential expertise and public engagement in policymaking? How does policymaking in Australia, both past and current practice, compare with other countries (especially in our region) in its culture, structure and style? When does policymaking ‘work’, when does it ‘fail’, and why? And, given increasing specialisation, what is the role of inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches, concepts which are widely embraced but have often struggled to be as productive as their promises?

Innovation and Experimentation

What innovative approaches to policymaking and expertise hold the most promise? These might include the promise and perils of greater public participation and democratisation of policymaking, or the use of citizen science, citizen juries, aggregative expertise, crowd wisdom, practical knowledge, indigenous knowledge, and so on. What might be learned from policy-making in the global ‘South’?

This conference aims to include leading thinkers and policy practitioners both locally and globally. It is designed to be relatively small in size to enable all attendees to participate actively in the sessions. A number of key participants have been specially invited.

This conference is organised by the Melbourne School of Government (MSoG) at The University of Melbourne, Australia.

Conference Organising Committee

  • Professor John Howe, Director, Melbourne School of Government, The University of Melbourne
  • Professor Jon Pierre, Melbourne School of Government, The University of Melbourne
  • Professor Lars Coenen, City of Melbourne Chair of Resilient Cities, The University of Melbourne
  • Professor Robyn Eckersley, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne
  • Dr Jeremy Baskin, Melbourne School of Government, The University of Melbourne
  • Dr Daniel McCarthy, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne