Science and political decision-making – the Parliament of Finland’s Committee for the Future

20.8.2018

There is much less objective information in the world that we might think. What we do find is a number of well-founded alternative viewpoints.

In my previous job, I spent 15 years working at the Finland Futures Research Centre at the University of Turku, initially as a researcher and later as Head of Development and Vice Director. As a futures researcher, I conducted various foresight projects for companies, the public sector and for non-governmental organisations in Finland and internationally. The aim of our foresight work was to develop futures thinking, identify changes and opportunities and support strategic decision-making and good management.

Contrary to the common assumption, the mission of futures studies is not to predict in advance what might be happening in 2050, for example. Instead, we can use different forecasting and futures studies methods to reveal well-founded alternative future scenarios which help us to better understand what we want to happen. This enables us to make better and more considered decisions in the here and now. It is more about making the future than knowing the future. Preparing for alternative futures also improves actors’ resilience and ability to react.

The mission of futures studies is not to predict in advance what might be happening in the future. Instead, we can use different forecasting and futures studies methods to reveal well-founded alternative future scenarios which help us to better understand what we want to happen.

In my current job at the Parliament of Finland, I now work on the other side of the fence; I use and buy information where I used to produce and sell it. The Committee for the Future is one of the standing committees of the Parliament of Finland. All the members of the Committee are Members of the Finnish Parliament. I work as the Committee Counsel of the Committee for the Future, in other words as its secretary; and, as a civil servant, I prepare for the Committee’s meetings. My job includes finding the information needed on any issue under the sun that the Committee for the Future is to discuss.

The Committee for the Future in the Parliament of Finland

The Committee for the Future has four main tasks in Parliament. It addresses the same kind of parliamentary issues as the other committees, and drafts statements and opinions on these issues. The difference between the Committee for the Future and the legislative committees is that while they are given topics to address by the Government, prepared by the ministries, the Committee for the Future can choose which matters it wishes to examine itself. The Committee only has four permanent parliamentary tasks: the Report on the Future, the 2030 Agenda report (i.e. monitoring national measures under UN’s sustainable development programme), and, like all the committees, it issues a statement on the Government’s annual report and the budget.

Secondly, the Committee for the Future is tasked with identifying phenomena and issues significantly affecting the future of Finland at sufficiently early a stage that they can still be influenced by political decision-making. In performing this task, the Committee consults hundreds of experts every year and, where necessary, may also commission minor investigative projects. The results of these consultations and investigations are passed on to Parliament’s other committees and the Government in statements and reports. The Committee communicates with civic society by means of seminars, for example. During this term of government, topics researched by the Committee include the post-truth era, the sharing economy and the platform economy, education exports and societal confrontation.

Thirdly, the Committee for the Future acts as a think tank for the Parliament of Finland, in other words, the role of the Committee is to develop new innovations for democracy and political decision-making. Among other things, the Committee has developed a virtual committee, involved citizens in preparing legislation using digital platforms and developed new, creative premises and dialogue-based operating models for the Parliament of Finland. The new creative premises mean that in the future, consultations with experts can take place at future workshops, for example. The new premises also enable the use of artificial intelligence to gather and simulate data, as well as the use of robots and augmented reality in telepresence tools.

The fourth task is developing futures studies and foresight. In association with this, the Committee has developed the Radical technologies foresight tool and methods linked to Black Swans, dialectical futures studies and utopias and dystopias. Black Swans seeks out events that upset the status quo instead of trends. In dialectical futures studies, global courses of events are delineated as trends and anti-trends, and as the synthesis trends born out of the tension between them. Fiction, such as utopias and dystopias, can be used to seek the limits of what is possible and outline fears and expectations linked to development.

The Committee has also researched the use of artistic methods in teaching, research and development. On a slightly larger scale, the Committee has negotiated with the Academy of Finland on the scientific evaluation of Finland’s national foresight system and arranging basic scientific funding for futures studies. Developing the quality of foresight means the scientific development of methods of futures studies.

Science and decision-making

The claim that there is a need for more knowledge-based decision-making is frequently heard. In fact, the Parliament of Finland, for example, has a vast information processing machinery, through which a huge amount of information on all manner of topics flows every day. In the work of its committees, the Parliament of Finland has more experts than Members of Parliament. Each decision will have been prepared by hundreds or even thousands of civil servants, experts and other stakeholder groups over a period of months or even years. Does anyone really think that decisions are not based on information? The issue is more the opposite; there is too much information.

The Parliament of Finland, for example, has a vast information processing machinery, through which a huge amount of information on all manner of topics flows every day.

Another problem is that science does not have the answers to the questions that decision-makers ask. Or to put it more accurately, science has too many answers. If the Committee consults experts on, say, the future of energy, each expert will have their own answer on the issue. The first might emphasise bioenergy, the second nuclear power, the third hydrogen, while the rest will advocate wind, solar, waste, geothermal energy, wave power, energy efficiency, the circular economy, and so on.

Science is not more unanimous about the right decision than the political decision-makers are. A prime example here is the debate that has also arisen around sustainable development as to whether the bioeconomy solutions developed to slow climate change threaten the biodiversity of the forests.

The time frame also causes problems in finding scientific answers. Once a matter has reached Parliament, there will only be a few weeks or months available before an answer is required. Parliament does not have time to wait for research programmes to be launched or research to be completed.

A third problem is that science may not be capable of resolving the big questions of political decision-making, even theoretically. We simply may not be capable of calculating an objective answer to what a fair salary or pension system might be, or what are just sanctions, or what is sufficient wellbeing. If we are capable of doing so, artificial intelligence may soon be able to decide things on our behalf.

Sometimes it is a question of compromises – some researchers may define the energy source that produces the lowest pollution while other researchers can identify the safest option. But in political decision-making, in addition to environmental benefit and safety, many other viewpoints need to be taken into account from employment and regional policy dimensions to security of supply, and whether the solution is Finnish. International agreements and competition law may also need to be factored in. Experts with in-depth knowledge of their own areas are no better than political decision-makers at reaching these kinds of compromises.

In this term of government, the Committee for the Future has examined the post-truth era and the definition of what is a fact. In its reports, the Committee noted that there is much less objective information in the world that we might think. There are quite definite physical facts, such as the density of hydrogen. But when it comes to societal questions, there are barely any such objective facts. For example, there may not be one right answer to a fair salary system. What we have are several well-founded alternative viewpoints. Instead, at each point in time there are numerous social and societal structures and norms that define who is allowed to determine the truth and decide what is right and wrong. These structures are currently undergoing a transition, partly due to globalisation and operating models enabled by new technology. Therefore, the boundaries and definitions of information and ethics (good and bad, right and wrong) are in flux.

Alongside universities, new actors have developed who produce data and information for decision-makers. There is a wide variety of information and knowledge interests. Universities are still trustworthy producers of facts. But if we need creative innovations and new ideas, then think tanks and consultancies may provide better support for strategic decision-making than researchers. Lobbyists are always condemned but if the Committee wants to know what a Finnish or major international company is planning and wants, who will the committee better hear this information from? A university or a lobbyist?

Experts whose expertise is founded on personal experience also have their place. The experience of a client who has accessed mental health services is just as interesting to the Committee as that of a professor of social and health science. In a consultation on electric cars, for example, the Committee consulted on professors from a technical university and professional drivers who drive electric vehicles. These experts supplemented each other. The consultation method poses a certain challenge here. Citizens and experts with personal experience cannot be consulted in quite the same way as professors. Creative premises and crowdsourcing platforms are needed for precisely this reason.

Olli Hietanen works as the Committee Counsel for the Parliament of Finland’s Committee for the Future.