Utrecht University: ERC Consolidator Grant Barbara Vis for ‘Politicians under Radical Uncertainty’

The European Research Council (ERC) has granted prof. Barbara Vis from Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) a Consolidator Grant for the research project entitled ‘Politicians under Radical Uncertainty: How Uncertain Phenomena Influence Political Elites’ Behaviour’. How do political elites respond to both radically and resolvably uncertain phenomena? Thanks to the ECR grant of 2 million euro the RadiUnce research team led by Vis will address the lack of attention to radical uncertainty in theories and empirical analyses of political behaviour.

How Uncertain Phenomena Influence Political Elites’ Behaviour

Political elites, like ministers or parliamentarians, face numerous radically uncertain phenomena, such as Covid-19 (when will it be over?) to the long-term effects of Brexit. Radical uncertainty is characterized by manifold unknowns, ambiguity and vagueness, and it differs fundamentally from resolvable uncertainty, those situations that are unknown but knowable, like whether vaccines protect against a new variant of the virus. RadiUnce will explore how these phenomena influence political elites’ behaviour. Do they avoid uncertainty, as some did with the coronavirus; use rules of thumb, heuristics, e.g. comparing Covid-19 to the flu; or display other behavioural responses? Answering this is urgent, because how they respond impacts their effectiveness in solving problems. For example, avoiding a virus may cost lives, while using heuristics may result in faulty courses of action.

New Model of Political Elites’ Behavioural Responses to Uncertainty

RadiUnce’s aim is to develop a theoretical model of how political elites respond to both radically and resolvably uncertain phenomena. The research will focus on four countries with different institutional opportunities and constraints for responding to uncertainty: Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, 1996-2021.

These are some of RadiUnce’s key contributions:

Conceptually it pioneers the concept radical uncertainty in political science. This will advance subfields like comparative politics by solving the puzzle of why and when politicians with different characteristics display similar behaviour.
Empirically it collects unique comparative data of politicians through an innovative combination of automated text analysis and survey experiments.
It’s multi-method approach, integrating quantitative data with qualitative methods (process tracing, Qualitative Comparative Analysis, interviews), which can also further other social and behavioural sciences, like economics or psychology.
This results in a novel, multidisciplinary theoretical model— integrating insights from political science, behavioural economics, decision theory, psychology and public administration—of political elites’ behaviour that puts radical uncertainty center stage.
RadiUnce’s fundamental research of real politicians’ behaviour under radical uncertainty can result in better decisions in key circumstances, ranging from digitalisation to Covid-19 to migration. This may substantially improve democratic problem solving and thereby possibly also quality of life.