Post-Normal Science and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

Ângela Guimarães Pereira & Thomas Völker

Engagements with different actors on various levels of governance and policymaking were a central element of Quantitative Story Telling (QST) approach developed and applied in MAGIC. This approach builds on ideas developed by Jerry Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz as a part of their writing on post-normal science (PNS). In particular, our work made use of their concept of an ‘extended peer communities’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993), i.e. “consisting not merely of persons with some form or other of institutional accreditation, but rather of all those with a desire to participate in the resolution of the issue.” (Ravetz, 1999: 651)

While these engagements were for the most part carefully designed and orchestrated, sometimes chances for interacting with the world of policy emerge as a coincidence. We want to use an event of the latter sort to reflect on the relation between PNS and the European Commission (EC).

Midway through the project, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) started contributing to a so-called Flagship-project on the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem (WEFE) nexus, which brought together different units at the JRC. Since it was common knowledge at that time that both of us were part of the MAGIC project and thus also working on nexus governance, we were approached to “do something together”. Our JRC colleagues thus were able to report collaboration with different nexus initiatives while we could tick the box of science-policy-engagements.

The workshop we came up with aimed at bringing together JRC researchers, policy officers from policy DGs and scholars working on the WEF concept with a selection of MAGIC consortium partners to discuss nexus narratives together with challenges to nexus governance and approaches for addressing these challenges. The main aim of the workshop was discussing key narratives that were distilled from a document analysis of policy papers and interviews with EC policymakers. The idea was that these could inspire future model requirements.

Reading this description, you might have stumbled across the notion “narrative”, which we casually dropped a couple of times already. What do we mean by that and how does it fit with this workshop?

Conceptually speaking, narrative means a (mostly retrospective) sequential ordering of events from a narrator’s perspective, thus constituting particular temporal and spatial structures and establishing a set of actors/subject positions with particular rationales, often together with a causal relationship between a problem and a solution. Narratives are a fundamental part of how we as individuals and organised social collectives engage with the world. When we walk through a wood, we might see a habitat for certain species, the “lungs” of our world, a recreational space in a world characterised by increasing urbanisation, or – more recently – an area increasingly threatened by climate change and wildfires. It is practically impossible to cognitively and interactionally make sense of ‘the wood’ without embedding it in a story. It is in that sense that Jerome Bruner talks about human beings as “storied animals” (Bruner, 1991). Consequently, stories or narratives not only refer to a cognitive capacity of single isolated actors, but additionally they can be regarded as a “sociocultural artefact” (Herman, 2003). Narratives do something, they way in which we narratively grasp the world in which we live in does have consequence for how we live in it. They express broader imaginations about the world, who and what has agency in it and what is valued. They are closely related to institutional, cultural, moral and material formations of society (Bremer et al., 2017). In policy-making, narratives tacitly define possible horizons for action and distinguish actors from non-actors and issues from non-issues (Hajer, 2006). They naturalise the “normal”, the “taken for granted”. Thus, when working with narratives it is eminently important to talk about not only what is actually there but to also stay attentive to that which is absent. This was done in MAGIC by asking for the relation of dominant to counter narratives or to explore the functions of certain types of narratives (see Mario Giampietro and Silvio Funtowicz in this issue).

Working with narratives in MAGIC has been a way to collaborate more closely with policy DGs to explore how policy narratives relate to scientific representations, while also aiming to extend the peer community of policymakers. Additionally, talking and reflecting about policy narratives is a way to tackle the more informal side of institutions and practices of governance (Hajer, 2006). They become a method to “challenge unthinking consensus” as our colleague Keith Matthews likes to put it.

In this contribution to the Nexus Time we don’t want to reflect on the outcomes of this particular workshop in terms of the main take-aways, nor do we want to engage in the practice of selling success stories that are among the most valuable commodities within the JRC/EC institutional ecology. What we want to do is to use this workshop to reflect on peer-group extension as a practice with the Joint Research Centre to see what “doing post-normal science” entails and means in this particular context. The term “extended peer community” is usually used descriptively, e.g. “the case of AIDS” (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993: 753) or normatively to call for the involvement of heterogeneous actors in policy- and decision-making processes.

If PNS is indeed characterised by extended peer communities and extended facts (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993) this in turn makes it necessary to reflect on the problem of extension (Collins and Evans, 2002; Dickel and Franzen, 2016) and on questions about the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing and claims to expertise. We argue that is important to consider extension as a practice involving competing claims about the legitimacy of certain sets of expertise, methods and even disciplines in a given organisational-cultural process for any given problem. Extension then becomes a messy practice involving actors with different stakes and aims.

So, why was this workshop made possible? What happened during and after the event, and (maybe more importantly) what did not happen?

In the more recent past, the JRC was led by a management that made a lot of effort to break down existing “silos”, attempting to walk the talk of interdisciplinary research and paying attention to questions of complexity; there was a new attention e.g. to social sciences and humanities and some organisational push towards collaborative work through transversal and flagship projects. Furthermore, there was a de facto restructuring of services. In practice, however, this hasn’t always translated into epistemic dialogue but rather resulted in amalgamations of different standpoints, with the consequence that the historically stabilised - usually inoffensive - standpoints are channelled to policy. In the case of this workshop, a senior manager was open to the opportunity to conduct this encounter. Not surprisingly, he has anticipated the kinds of resistance that we faced later on but was nonetheless quite enthusiastic about it.

After the workshop, a report was produced, which mapped and described the different nexus-challenges (and controversies about them) for each of the narratives that we discussed with participants. The challenges were subsequently translated into questions that could potentially be addressed by the existing or adapted models. However, it is on what follows that we can further our reflection on what “extension” means in practice.

First, we think that there was institutional momentum to conduct this activity. Not only did the JRC strategy at that time require cross-unit “collaborative work”, but also the management actors involved saw an opportunity to safely explore the interdisciplinary pursuit: safely here means that there were no real (political) commitments of follow-up and no “witch-hunting” on the horizon. To put it bluntly, the outcomes could be outright ignored, and the reputations would not be touched.

Secondly, on the same vein, to start with many of the researchers involved had genuine interest in the conceptual discussions that the narratives helped to prompt. The discussions were often uncomfortable, as there was open criticism of taken for granted concepts (e.g. water scarcity) or regarding the reductionism of adopted concepts in nexus related policy (e.g. ecosystems services). However, there was no real mandate for the researchers to follow-up on those discussions and to change anything in existing practices or to be committed to this “extension” for longer period of time; this has found in very pragmatic justifications (e.g. lack of personnel, no policy request, urgency to deliver narratives) no practical implementation of the discussions, as far as modelling was concerned.

Thirdly, we want to direct attention of an ongoing politics of expertise that was part of this experiment in extension: To start with, the authors of this paper are not formally trained on the models that were discussed in the workshop. Hence, to some extent our legitimacy was granted whilst we prepared and run the workshop, after which the workshop outcomes were deemed “philosophical”, which may mean that they were considered unpractical.  Furthermore, it must be noted that the dissenting and competing expertise present at the workshop was from outside the JRC, which gave the JRC actors some leeway in how and if to make use of these inputs; in the end of the day,  the material form of the workshop became therefore a shelved report for which there is no clear accountability.

So, what can MAGIC learn from this experiment of extension as means to channel uncomfortable knowledge into a science-for-policy-milieu like the JRC? And what are potential broader implications for engagements with the policy-realm?

When we look at extension as a practice of social, epistemic, organisational and moral re-ordering, we see that in order for this workshop to take place, there needed to be momentum in the sense of coinciding interests of various actors on different institutional levels, agreement on the necessary people to involve and on the acceptable degree of disruptiveness. Also, and this is probably the most important element, the workshop depended on powerful actors that functioned as gatekeepers or “champions” of extension. What we described as an event emerging by “coincidence” in the beginning of this essay, is the outcome of what can be described as a complex politics of extension. This also became visible in the ongoing struggle for legitimacy of different ways of knowing and kinds of expertise (uncomfortable knowledge as “philosophical”).

Next to such politics of extension, one needs to stay attentive to the temporalities involved. As we laid out, there was no mandate, accountability, or long-term commitment, so it was safe to conduct this workshop.

Overall, one may ask whether there was any extension. We have two possible answers for this question: either the extension did not exist, to the extent that the workshop was merely performative, useful to tick some boxes, or the question is outright inappropriate, as the workshop did not actually invite an “extended” but an “inconvenient” peer community that brought in uncomfortable knowledge. Hence, it is important to note that the honest discussion has not led to change, and in the spirit of PNS, one is left to wonder if science-policy institutions would ever be able to work with extended peer communities. We could argue that the extension in this case was the work on and with narratives, which - shelved or not - was a warning that the “taken for granted” narratives might not always be what they seem.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that it took the Commission almost 20 years to pass from a seminal White Paper on participatory governance (2001) to advance the extension talk into a political priority and commitment. The process of making it visible took perseverance, subversive work, and some degree of serendipity. The uncomfortable knowledge generated by MAGIC seems to be still overwhelming in an institutional sense. The process of making it visible might take either a catastrophe or hopefully courageous politics to avoid the former, precisely by institutionalising practices of extension.



Bremer, S. et al. (2017) ‘Narrative as a method for eliciting tacit knowledge of climate variability in Bangladesh’, Weather, Climate, and Society. American Meteorological Society, 9(4), pp. 669–686.

Bruner, J. (1991) ‘The narrative construction of reality’, Critical Inquiry, 18(1), pp. 1–21.

Collins, H. M. and Evans, R. (2002) ‘The Third Wave of Science Studies’, Social Studies of Science, 32(2), pp. 235–296. Available at:

Dickel, S. and Franzen, M. (2016) ‘The “Problem of Extension” revisited: new modes of digital participation in science’, Journal of Science Communication, 15(1), p. A06_en.

Funtowicz, S. and Ravetz, J. (1993) ‘Science for the Post-Normal Age’, Futures, 25(7), pp. 739–757.

Hajer, M. A. (2006) ‘The living institutions of the EU: Analysing governance as performance’, Perspectives on European politics and society, 7(1), pp. 41–55.

Herman, D. (2003) Stories as a Tool for Thinking. In D. Herman (Ed.), CSLI lecture notes. Narrative theory and the cognitive sciences (p. 163–192). Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Ravetz, J. R. (1999) ‘What is Post-Normal Science’, Futures, 31, pp. 647–653.

Image credit: Schuman Berlaymont