The Grand Challengers Podcast Episode #26

The Good, the Bad, and the Socio-Political – can science really support policymaking?

Guest: Manuel Fischer

March 19th, 2024

Episode Teaser


“…it’s entangled at many different moments, this technological world and the social world…”

Manuel Fischer – Professor from the University of Bern, Switzerland and the head of the Environmental Social Sciences Department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag). Armed with a political science background, Manuel and his Policy Analysis and Environmental Governance research group (PEGO) have sought to understand the complexity of social dynamics and collaboration on a range of environmental issues, both in times of crises and in times of calm, from topics of changing energy policy due to climate change and major disasters to harmonizing our relationship with the ecological world.

On today’s show, Manuel and I discuss the reality of doing social sciences in the political space, the intricate dynamics among different actors in the context of energy and ecology, and the opposing roles of the so-called ‘devil shift’ and ‘devil’s advocates’. Manuel also reflects on the reality of when and whether science can have an impact on guiding future policies and how scientists can leave their infamous ivory tower. Detailed information is provided in the show notes over at, Thank you for joining us today and please enjoy the show.


Manuel Fischer is titular Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Bern and the head of the Environmental Social Sciences Department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag). He studied political sciences at the University of Geneva and undertook a PhD there in the Department of Political Science. During the completion of his thesis, he spent some time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill USA before returning to Switzerland to undertake a postdoc at Eawag. Manuel’s own Policy Analysis and Environmental Governance (PEGO) Research Group is driven by current complex environmental and societal challenges. These include the integration of different aspects of water resources management, the drivers and impacts of climate change and the transition towards a clean energy system.

He utilizes policy process theories, institutional analysis and multi-level governance frameworks to study a wide variety of substantial issues including innovative and effective policy design, instrument choice under uncertainty and the integration of actors from different spatial scales or levels and stages of the policy process.

Resources Related to the Episode

  • Manuel is the second social scientist on the show. The first one was Megan Farrelly from Episode 8. You can check out her episode for more 101s on doing social sciences
  • Qualitative Research: useful reference books on doing qualitative research if you’re interested in furthering your skills
    • Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches 4th Edition by John C. Creswell [View on Amazon]
    • The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Sixth Edition by Denzin, Lincoln, Giardina and Cannella (eds.) [View on Amazon]
  • An introduction to Switzerland’s political system
  • Tourism in Davos – definitely worth visiting if you’re in Switzerland
  • Manuel’s paper on the ‘devil-shift’: Fischer, M., Ingold, K., Sciarini, P. and Varone, F., 2016. Dealing with bad guys: actor-and process-level determinants of the “devil shift” in policy making. Journal of public policy36(2), pp.309-334. [Link]
  • Origins of the term ‘devil’s advocate’
  • Just to complete the list of devils, here’s a recipe for ‘deviled eggs’
  • A history of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
  • Manuel’s paper on the effect of external shocks on collaboration patterns: Fischer, M., 2015. Collaboration patterns, external shocks and uncertainty: Swiss nuclear energy politics before and after Fukushima. Energy Policy86, pp.520-528. [Link]
  • What are social networks ?
  • Social-Ecological Systems:
    • Bodin, Ö., Alexander, S.M., Baggio, J., Barnes, M.L., Berardo, R., Cumming, G.S., Dee, L.E., Fischer, A.P., Fischer, M., Mancilla Garcia, M. and Guerrero, A.M., 2019. Improving network approaches to the study of complex social–ecological interdependencies. Nature sustainability2(7), pp.551-559. [Link]
    • Manuel’s current project on social-ecological systems: Blue-Green Net [Project Website]
    • We reference Episode 14 with Janine Bolliger in relation to biodiversity, species and interconnectedness, check out her Episode for more information.
  • The reference of crocodiles and lizards on the golf course was inspired by my own experience. You find many monitor lizards in South-East Asia or crocodiles in Namibia at the Lost City Golf Course’s 13th Hole
  • “The old academic in a white ivory tower” – the white ivory tower reference [Wikipedia]

Episode Chapters

(Chapters are embedded in the episode for quick access, click this to expand and view all chapters and time stamps)
  • 0:00 Intro
  • 1:59 Guest Intro, Interview Skills and Social Processes
  • 7:01 Manuel for President!
  • 9:14 A 101 on Swiss Politics
  • 13:03 Manuel’s academic journey to date
  • 17:14 Actors, the social scientist and the theatre piece
  • 19:27 The good guys, the bad guys and the ‘devil shift’
  • 28:18 The ‘devil’s advocate’?
  • 31:06 Decision-making in times of crises – Fukushima
  • 36:09 Social networks
  • 40:27 Social-Ecological Networks for Biodiversity
  • 48:02 The role of scientists going forward
  • 49:39 Manuel’s approach to the future
  • 50:45 Q&A Start
  • 51:08 Key event, person, book
  • 53:20 If you had a magic wand?
  • 54:04 Biggest challenge to date
  • 55:59 Time management
  • 58:14 Advice to young social scientists
  • 1:00:44 The ivory tower of academia
  • 1:02:10 Where can people find you?
  • 1:02:49 Final message
  • 1:03:05 Outro

Connect with Manuel Fischer

Related Episodes

Episode #003 – Martijn Kuller
A game of planning, a set of maps and a match of nature-based solutions
(Related Topics: decision-making, stakeholders)
Episode #008 – Megan A. Farrelly
Don’t forget the social – experiments in urban water and energy transitions

(Related Topics: social science, governance)
Episode #014 – Janine Bolliger
Lights, Camera, GPS and Action around biodiversity enhancement in human-dominated landscapes

(Related Topics: biodiversity, connectivity)
Episode #018 – Fritz Kleinschroth
From tropical forests to the city – reconciliation ecology between human infrastructure and nature conservation
(Related Topics: biodiversity, society-nature interaction)