An Uneasy Balance: Science Advising and the Politicization of Science


Science and technology-related issues are pervasive in today’s society. Science contributes
in many ways to our lives, whether directly in health-related matters or more indirectly through effects on the environment, economic development, and international relationships. What is science and technology policy? While difficult to define, one author described it as “a governmental course of action intended to support, apply, or regulate scientific knowledge or technological innovation” ([1], 12). As we will explore, policy sometimes takes the form of governmental action, but occasionally inaction results because of political considerations.
Nongovernmental actors also affect public policies, including nonprofit advocacy organizations, educational institutions, and businesses.

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Policies may be divided into two types: decisions affecting the funding or direction of science (“policy for science”), and decisions that draw on scientific data to inform policy debate (“science in policy”) [2]. Issues regarding the funding and direction of science are obvious examples of
science and technology policy, but we will demonstrate that the latter (science in
policy) are as important for the population at large.

How are policy decisions made? An abstract description includes five stages: the perception and definition of a problem by the public and policymakers, the formulation of possible solutions by policymakers, the adoption of a policy, its implementation, and then an evaluation of the outcome of the decision [1]. It is rare that the political policymaking process follows this tidy description—a field of social science, policy science, attempts to develop a rational framework for understanding,
predicting, and directing the policymaking process [3].

Several features of science policy issues distinguish them from more general policy questions [1]. Particularly in the life sciences, the pace of technological change is rapid, and issues arising from new developments are novel. The technologies are complex, and difficult for both policymakers and the general public to grasp. New developments may carry irreversible consequences, and once in use, it may be difficult
to stop their application. New technologies may raise strong public worries about threats to health and safety, the environment, or other areas of concern.

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Finally, many developments challenge deeply held social, moral, and religious values. All these factors may contribute to the difficulty in establishing effective policy. As will be demonstrated by the case studies presented in the upcoming chapters, how a question is formulated—by whom, and under what time and political constraints—can have an enormous impact on the decisions that are made.

Although scientific input is only one factor in policymaking, having accurate, timely, and accessible information is valuable for developing appropriate responses.
Policy is made by all branches of the federal government—executive (including
regulatory agencies), legislative, and judiciary—and state governments. Foreign governments also make policy, and treaties are often used to secure consistent international policies on far-reaching issues, such as in the domains of the environment (e.g., global warming and biodiversity), trade, and human rights. Given the range of policy challenges facing governments, how does scientific understanding and knowledge contribute to the decision-making process? This chapter provides
an overview of the ways in which scientific information may be used by the federal government to develop policy. It then goes on to discuss the inherent conflict between science and politics, and how this leads to the apparent politicization of science.

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Science Policy and Government

In the United States, science may contribute to policy discussions on several levels. There are close to a thousand advisory committees in the federal government; about half of these deal directly or indirectly with scientific or technological matters [4, 5]. Scientists may advise the president and other members of the executive branch on establishing directions for research and setting the agenda for future development through cabinet-level positions. Scientists offer testimony to Congress, adding
their expertise and opinions to the debate. They also contribute to the development of regulations by the numerous regulatory agencies given responsibility for the oversight of different science-related activities. The courts influence policy by an array of decisions; some rule directly on matters regarding science (patents, etc.), and some reverse policy decisions made by other branches of government. Judicial rulings informed by “expert testimony” may alter existing policies or drive the
development of new ones. The courts might also determine that a new law or regulation violates the Constitution or statutes, requiring reevaluation by the body creating or instituting the policy. The government may request that studies be conducted by independent nonpartisan organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to provide information to aid the policy process.

In a democratic society, policy decisions are rarely made without some consideration
of public opinion—unpopular decisions might be rebuked at the ballot box. As citizens, scientists may seek to influence politicians to support their views. Scientists and their employer institutions (corporate or academic) and professional societies may actively lobby for specific policy decisions; one major focus of such lobbying is research funding. Scientists may also work as advisers to organizations that take activist roles in influencing public opinion and driving policy decisions.

Individuals with scientific experience or interests may work as journalists to help
inform the public on new issues. At the same time, the public’s understanding, or lack thereof, of new scientific developments may lead to calls for governmental action. If not tempered by sound advising, poorly conceived or nonsensical policies may result.

The Politicization of Science: Conflicting Goals of Science and Politics

Whatever the means of input, there is a constant tension between science and politics. From the perspective of science, policies should reflect careful consideration of the scientific data, and should be in line with the findings and recommendations of science. Scientists who offer advice to policymakers, however, often complain that their input is ignored or distorted during the policymaking process. Political values and necessities may conflict sharply with the data presented by scientists. A policy may be developed that represents a compromise between the criteria determined by science and the pragmatic needs of politics. An effective policy should be cost-effective and fair, place limited demands on government, and provide assurance to the public that the goals will be met [20]. If an administration’s position is not supported by the data, it may ask for further studies rather than accept what is offered. In extreme cases, scientific data might be buried in the face of the apparent demands of politics.

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The selective use of scientific advice and information has received heavy media coverage in recent years. This strategy is not new, though, President Richard Nixon removed all science advising from the White House during his tenure because he objected to reports with recommendations against his own projects; he also expressed strong irritation toward the apparent left-leaning political viewpoints of many leading scientists [1, 21]. Examples of policies that either ignored or ran contrary to scientific input are common in the physical sciences—for instance, the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider for budgetary reasons in the 1980s despite strong support from physicists.
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Science advice is subject to harsh criticism from both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. Advocates for more regulation might argue that scientific evidence is distorted in order to avoid establishing regulations, while those opposed to regulation contend that science is distorted in order to promulgate intrusive and inappropriate regulation [1, 6, 22]. Critics label advisers as incompetent or biased, committees as unbalanced or unduly influenced by certain positions, and supporting science as flawed and incomplete. Because scientific information is rarely clearcut,
science policy recommendations remain vulnerable to criticism. In addition, critics may seize on reports of scientific misconduct as justification for discounting all work in a controversial area [15]. Finally, because many leading scientists are also recipients of federal funding, critics charge that their advice is tainted by the desire to obtain more research funding.


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