Sustainability and Post-Normal Science

Who should decide what the proper policy towards genetically engineered plants in agriculture is? Should it be experts who determine, say, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that is acceptable (after they had defined what “acceptable” means)? What about other sustainability-related problems: biodiversity loss, Peak Everything? Are science and scientific analyses enough, or do we need a different basis for decision-making?

In 1991 two social scientists, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, introduced a term that may help us answer the questions asked above. Post-normal science is the name they gave to their concept. Indeed, they developed the idea of post-normal science in exactly the context I would like to apply it to presently: sustainability (their respective paper appeared in the classic volume edited by Robert Costanza, Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability).

Funtowicz and Ravetz recognized that many of today’s problems are much more complex than those our grand-parents had to deal with (partly, of course, just because we know much more). Earlier, it was common to leave important decisions regarding, say, the introduction of new technologies, to authorities – politicians, civil servants and, above all, the scientists who provided them with consultancy.  Today, however, this is not enough any more. Climate change, genetic engineering of new crop varieties, cloning are vastly complex issues, which influence the lives of whole societies. New approaches to decision-making are therefore needed.

To distinguish between post-normal science and the older paradigms

Source: Munda (2004).

Source: Munda (2004).

Funtowicz and Ravetz focused on two important dimensions: uncertainty and stakes. Building on them, they differentiate between three categories: academic science, professional consultancy and post-normal science (see picture). In the words of Giuseppe Munda, from whose article the picture was taken, post-normal science is needed when “facts [are} uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, decisions urgent”.

Now we know when post-normal science is needed. But what is it? In fact, you also may call it “democratic science”. It recognizes the ethical component of decision-making and of science itself, and that this component cannot be fully “covered” by the analysis of scientists and the informed decisions by politicians. This would be technocracy. Instead, post-normal science presupposes participation by stakeholders. They must take part in the processes of goal formulation, determination of the criteria for evaluation of alternatives, feedback for scientific analysis and, also, the final decision.

Let us use climate change policy as an example. First, we have to see whether this is a case for post-normal science. Uncertainty? There is huge amount of uncertainty sources regarding the exact details of the climatic system’s behaviour, many of which are likely unsolvable. Check. Stakes? Those are huge, too. In the end, the future of human civilization as we know it may be what we are gambling for. Check. Values? Even those agreeing on the reality and magnitude of anthropogenic climate change do not necessarily agree on what exactly should be done. The main issues are intra- and intergenerational equity and the prospects of technological progress (although the latter may be interpreted as an issue of technical rather than social incommensurability in Munda’s terms, and thus closer to the uncertainty criterion). In the area of climate policy design, very different values are involved. Check. Urgency? If you look at the changes that had already been caused by our interference with the atmosphere, it is hard to find a more urgent problem. Check.

As shown above, climate change clearly fits the criteria of an area screaming for post-normal science. What are the consequences then for global climate policy? First of all – academic science and professional consultancy do not provide a sufficient basis for decision-making in this case. Of course, climate science in its “academic” form is a crucial input. But the decisions about what level of greenhouse gas concentrations is acceptable, how to reduce emissions, who is to pay for the reductions etc. should be made in a process of deliberation at the societal level (and then, possibly, feed in in international climate talks). All of us are stakeholders and, thus, all of us should at least have a chance to get involved. It is the society as a whole that should decide what to do about the scientists’ results, not the scientists themselves (this is too much a burden, alas too often expected from them), nor politicians or other powerful, but exclusive interest groups.

Indeed, sustainable development as a whole concept is thus complex, urgent, involves so many sources of uncertainty, and therefore reasons for judgement calls, and involves so different value systems that it cannot be dealt with but by the means and ways of post-normal science. The approach proposed by Funtowicz and Ravetz and advanced by others makes clear what the difference is between the needs of the past and the challenges of today and the future. We should accommodate our decision-making processes to this.


  • Silvio Funtowicz, Jerome Ravetz (1991): ‘A New Scientific Methodology for Global Environmental Issues’. In: Robert Costanza (ed.): Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-07563-4. pp. 137-152.
  • Giuseppe Munda (2004): ‘Social multi-criteria evaluation: Methodological foundations and operational consequences’. European Journal of Operational Research 158. pp. 662-677.

2 thoughts on “Sustainability and Post-Normal Science

  1. We can understand the root cause of Climategate as a case of scientists constrained to attempt to do normal science in a post-normal situation. But climate change had never been a really ‘normal’ science, because the policy implications were always present and strong, even overwhelming. Indeed, if we look at the definition of ‘post-normal science’, we see how well it fits: facts uncertain,values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent. In needing to treat Planet Earth like a textbook exercise, the climate scientists were forced to break the rules of scientific etiquette and ethics, and to play scientific power-politics in a way that inevitably became corrupt. The combination of non-critical ‘normal science’ with anti-critical ‘evangelical science’ was lethal. As in other ‘gate’ scandals, one incident served to pull a thread on a tissue of protective plausibilities and concealments, and eventually led to an unravelling. What was in the e-mails could be largely explained in terms of embattled scientists fighting off malicious interference; but the materials ready and waiting on the blogosphere provided a background, and that is what converted a very minor scandal to a catastrophe.


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