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Monika Ambrus, Karin Arts, Ellen Hey and Helena Raulus. The Role of Experts in International and European Decision-Making Processes: Advisors, Decision Makers or Irrelevant Actors? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 416.

Reviewed by: Nanette Svenson, PhD (Adjunct Professor of Global Development at Tulane University and Independent Consultant)

The Role of Experts in International and European Decision-Making Processes: Advisors, Decision Makers or Irrelevant Actors? offers timely and insightful information on the role of expert professionals in decision-making processes at both European and international levels. This book is of particular interest today as more scholars are examining, in greater depth, knowledge societies and economies. The book explores those who are considered to be the consummate purveyors of knowledge, the “experts,” and analyzes their potential influence on global, regional, and national policy. Editors Monika Ambrus, Karin Arts, Ellen Hey, and Helena Raulus have done an excellent job of collecting a variety of case studies and methodologies that address and discuss three overarching themes: the rationale for including experts and corresponding issues of legitimacy; individual and collective dimensions of expert involvement in decision-making; and experts and the politics of expertise. Additionally, the editors provide a range of contexts and thematics for this discussion through their selected chapters, which alternatively focus on such entities as the United Nations, the European Commission, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), along with topics spanning environmental well-being, human rights, health, and migration, among others.

Press Conference by European Union on Financing for Development. photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

The book contains 18 chapters and is divided into five parts: theorizing expert involvement in international and European decision making; expert involvement in international decision-making in the environmental sphere; experts in the WTO and risk regulation; experts in human rights related decision-making processes; and experts in decision-making processes of the European Union. Part I offers several chapters that lay the theoretical foundations about epistemic communities, the politics of expertise, inclusion of international legal experts, expert roles in regulatory policy making, and the virtues of expertise. These theoretical foundations serve to guide analyses in subsequent parts of the text. Parts II, III, and IV focus on the role of expertise in various international policy arenas. These include global environmental regimes, the WTO, the UN system of special human rights mandate-holders, and international migratory policy and control bodies. Part V deals with experts and decision-making at the European Union. This part includes two chapters that outline solutions for the financial crisis and two chapters that examine utilization of EU experts more generally.

Chapter 2 by Peter M. Haas, the recognized father of debate on epistemic communities, offers a strong essay on this key topic of knowledge and ideas, affecting governance through experts. Haas’ essay launches the book’s theoretical platform and lays the groundwork for others’ discussions of the ethics, politics, and protocols involved in the application of scientific knowledge to the practice of governance. At the outset, Haas quotes John Maynard Keynes on the influence of economic and political authorities and on the “gradual encroachment of ideas” (p. 19). This quote sets the tone for the rest of the book, in terms of emphasizing the extent of this potential power. 

A dominant theme of this volume is the blurring of lines between expert advice and decision-making. This theme begs the following questions: who is ultimately responsible for policy making and on the basis of what kind of information and analysis. This leads to a repeated call in several chapters to address two pressing universal needs: the institutionalization of the role of experts and improved moral and ethical reflection upon their role. As the world becomes ever more complex and interconnected, these two necessities become essential for legitimizing an increasing global dependency on expert-based regulation and governance.

Given the potential power the individual and collective expert knowledge bases wield, it would have been interesting to see more information on expert selection criteria and processes in this volume. This topic is touched upon in the introduction and referred to broadly in a couple of the chapters. Additionally, the issues of legitimacy are dealt with comprehensively from multiple perspectives. But, as the book suggests, experts are increasingly placed in positions of de facto decision-making, sometimes on crucial global matters. Thus, it would have been prudent to devote a larger portion of the text to examining the criteria (general or specific) involved in determining who qualifies as an “expert” in different circumstances and why.

The volume would have benefited from an analytically-oriented conclusion, which would have tied together the rich and sometimes divergent material presented in the different chapters. The commentary in the introductory chapter predominantly serves to present the book’s themes, parts, and chapters, rather than to critically examine some of the predominant themes and trends presented. This leaves the readers wanting more of an academic discussion of the varied material offered in the particular chapters and of some of the comparative and contrasting cerebral threads that might be teased from them.

European Parliament. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/JLogan

Returning to the question posed in the title of the book, we conclude that experts are, indeed, both advisors and decision-makers, especially when they exercise regulatory power. Even when they fail to deliver to expectation, they still retain their relevance. This book is a solid contribution to the exploration of the power of intellectual influence. It exposes the degree to which experts, in a number of fields, are effectively directing policy at multiple levels. The book will benefit those studying processes of social learning, norm entrepreneurship, and supranational regulatory function, to name a few applications for the ideas put forth here. This collection is also important for those interested in global governance, overall, and in the increasingly powerful role of scientific knowledge—or the perception of it—in the evolution of societal norms. The Role of Experts in International and European Decision-Making Processes shows how the ideas of those, who are recognized as knowledgeable and expert, are becoming progressively influential, for better or for worse. Ultimately, it makes a strong case for devoting further attention to the study of this topic to better understand the phenomenon.