We are delighted to welcome Matthias Meller, Visiting student/researcher on the Expertise Under Pressure project (EuP), and asked about his hopes for his stay at the project.
Matthias is a Master’s candidate for the ‘Responsibility in Science, Engineering and Technology’ programme at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Germany. He was Policy Intern at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) in Easter Term 2021 and worked as a Policy Analyst intern at a German State Ministry for Digital Affairs. Before his graduate studies, Matthias was Entrepreneur in Residence at a financial technology start-up. Matthias holds a BA in Philosophy & Economics, having studied in Germany, Canada, and Italy, and was a fellow of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation.
Q: Matthias, which aspect of Expertise Under Pressure do you find most exciting?
I was particularly drawn by understanding more closely what makes expertise authoritative. During my time in the start-up industry, I found it fascinating to observe the weight that venture capitalists’ judgment carried for the trajectory of single companies and even ecosystems. This already hints that expertise does not need to come in strictly academic terms. The COVID-19 pandemic induced a change to our understanding of the role of experts in public. They always have and increasingly been present; however, now, their judgement has been sought to guide us through the uncertainties of everyday life and social order day-to-day (and sometimes even less than that). The pressing demand for immediate expert judgement in this emergency foregrounds what may make expertise authoritative and which claims are aimed to support such authority.
Q: How does your own area of interest relate to the project’s primary research questions?
While at CSaP, I worked alongside Hannah Baker and Emily So from the EuP project, Shauna Concannon from the Giving Voice for Digital Democracies project (also at CRASSH) and other CSaP interns on how the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) provided advice to government during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research matured into a study of the evolving transparency and advice process, principally evidenced through the official minutes of SAGE meetings. I continued to be involved in the project beyond the internship and co-authored a paper we submitted at the end of 2021. My specific contributions included data acquisition and analysis, data visualisation and bringing in theory from my Science and Technology Studies (STS) background.
Additionally, for my graduate thesis supervised by Makoto Takahashi (Senior Researcher at TUM, Fulbright-Lloyd’s Fellow at Harvard), I am researching the public communication of SAGE experts and members of the group ‘Independent SAGE’ on Twitter. Independent SAGE, founded by the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King, arose against calls for greater transparency of the scientific advisory process and has used the platform as a principal venue to engage with their audiences. Amid their early labelling as a ‘rival group’ to SAGE, I was intrigued to ask how Independent SAGE laid claims to expertise and authority and, judged by the extensive media coverage, continued to play a role in the public’s perception of the UK’s pandemic response until recently.
Q: What are your hopes for your stay at CRASSH?
Interdisciplinarity has been at the core of my academic education, yet, this project has allowed me to work alongside fantastic researchers on truly interdisciplinary and timely research, discovering computational social science methods along the way. I cherish the opportunity to meet so many faces I have seen and worked with only virtually now, finally in person. It is often the unintentional and undirected exchanges face-to-face that stipulate the most interesting and durable thoughts on how to make sense of social change.
During my visit, I hope to refine our research paper on SAGE during the COVID-19 pandemic for publication. Furthermore, the EuP team and I will jointly reflect on how the pressures on SAGE as the primary provider of scientific advice to government, including the emergence of Independent SAGE, may shape the public’s expectations in the UK of what makes expertise authoritative and credible in the future.