The history of the WRR goes back to discussions in the 1950s and 1960s about what science and policy can offer each other and how these two domains are related. In several European countries, the idea emerged that existing modes of problem-solving had reached their limits. Debates erupted concerning which societal actors should be involved in the planning process and how scientific expertise and public interest should be balanced. There was a need to develop new forms of cross-sectoral planning. Discussions in the Netherlands concerning science for policy were not conducted in isolation, but linked to international discussions concerning the promotion of the humanities and social sciences. Meetings held at the OECD in the 1960s served as an important source of inspiration. Similar discussions and initiatives were taking place in other countries as well, including the Central Policy Review Staff in the UK and the Secretariat for Future Studies in Sweden.

The establishment of the WRR was a product of emerging groups of professional civil servants and social scientists who aspired to professionalize public decision-making by providing it with a scientific basis. These parties were convinced that science could help the government to enhance its understanding of societal mechanisms and structures for the future. This knowledge was also expected to enhance the coherence, coordination and, ultimately, the precision of the decision-making process. At the same time, policymakers were being confronted with more demanding tasks, responsibilities and expectations. They eagerly welcomed assistance from the sciences (including the social sciences) in their efforts to realize their growing ambitions with regard to planning.

The definitive construction of the WRR explicitly reflected technocratic ideas about how to strengthen the planning system and utilize social science in the policy process. Several social movements within the Netherlands criticized the De Wolff Commission’s advice to establish a new advisory body. They dismissed proposals for a ‘super planning council’ as a pact between policy-makers and scientific experts over the future. Futurology, they insisted, should not be an instrument of ‘the establishment’.

This critique influenced the design of the new organization. It was no longer regarded as a planning body, but as a body that would develop scientific future visions of society to support long-term policymaking. The design includes a measure of public deliberation by assigning the WRR responsibility for gathering information from the broader society, as well as from the scientific world, in keeping with the Dutch tradition of ensuring expert representation of public interests. The issue of participation was thus both directly connected and subordinate to expertise. Moreover, by referring to ‘government policy’, and not just ‘government’, the name of the council symbolizes its connection to society as a whole.

Enlarge image foto eerste voorzitter van de WRR
Image: ©WRR

The WRR was established by the Dutch government in 1972 under a provisional decree. It received a more permanent status in August 1976, when both chambers of Parliament accepted its Act of Establishment.

The long term

In line with one of its formal tasks, one of the first projects initiated by the WRR was entitled A general survey of future developments in the Netherlands. When the report was published in 1976, its external reception was mixed, and its internal audience did not regard it as successful. Largely due to methodological problems of forecasting, the final report did not live up to the original ambitions of the WRR. After this very ambitious initial project, the WRR continued with future studies, albeit on a smaller, more focused scale and as part of problem-orientated analyses. Over the years, the long-term focus has become an integral aspect of the work of the WRR. The exact scope of this long-term focus depends on the subject, and it has become only one of several selection criteria.

Stronger focus on society

At the beginning of the millennium, the WRR chose to participate more actively in the public debate and to become an active player in the public arena. Although its reports continue to address the government and Parliament, they are increasingly addressing other actors as well. The WRR is also expanding its range of communication forms to include seminars, lectures, videos, podcasts and popular editions aimed at broader audiences.