Science and Technology Policy Researchers and Practice: Do They Inform Each Other?

July 31st, 2008

Posted by: admin

I wanted to note for our readers the essay titled “History of Science and American Science Policy” from the current (June 2008) issue of Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society. Full citation:

Wang, Zuoyue and Naomi Oreskes. 2008. “History of Science and American Science Policy,” Isis, 99:2 (June), 365-373.

The essay is part of the journal’s Focus section, which in this issue asks “What is the Value of History of Science?” The other essays explore how the History of Science has or could influence other areas of scientific activity. While I found value in each of the essays, there are two things I wanted to post related to this particular example.

One thing that struck me as I read about the work of historians of science in the policy sphere in the late 1950s and 1980s is their absence in the 22 years since the 1986 study sponsored by the House. Add to that relative absence of other scholars dealing with science and technology policy in the practice of same, and I’m persuaded there’s a whole lot of knowledge transfer not going on that could.

That it doesn’t happen (or isn’t obvious) in science and technology policy research makes me wonder if the academic field is doing much more than perpetuating itself. Since only a small percentage of their students need go into academic careers to sustain their numbers, they don’t have to work that hard.

If I’m wrong about this, what should I be reading and where should I be looking? I’m not talking about government reports like those produced by the Congressional Research Service or the deified Office of Technology Assessment; nor do I mean reports written by think tanks, the National Academies or other non-academic, non-governmental bodies. They are written in a process and with a goal distinct from that of most academic research. I am looking for scholarship from science and technology policy researchers that has been effectively transferred to practitioners? In my work conducting policy analysis related to computer science, I’m rarely asked or encouraged to go to the academic literature unless it’s in computer science. There are many scholars who conduct evaluation work of science and technology programs for various agencies, but that work rarely places specific programs into larger contexts or provides critical analyses beyond the specific program in question.

Now, I don’t place this issue squarely at the feet of academic researchers. I’ve seen little indication from practitioners that they are seeking information that academic research can provide, or even know much about the bodies of knowledge that they can use for their work. I doubt there’s a sole cause behind this, as the pressure to perform or produce, the difference between policy-relevant and academic knowledge, the lack of awareness of what’s going on in academic research, and the time-scale differences between the two sectors all have some influence on why these two groups don’t talk that much. But it seems to me a screaming inefficiency that there isn’t some greater effort to transfer knowledge, or communicate ongoing research and ongoing questions between the two groups.

As an aside, in the essay by Zuoyue and Oreskes, I see yet again this revelation to at least one of the authors that policymaking is oh so different from what they do and/or what they expected. As somebody who attempts to work in both policy research and policy practice, my expectations may be too high. But it just strikes me as really naive that congressional hearings or similar activities are such an eye-opening experience to highly educated people ostensibly interested in policy. That they haven’t bothered to at least take a peak at what they might be getting into before testifying or researching congressional decision-making really reinforces all those isolationist stereotypes associated with the ivory tower. It’s politics, for crying out loud. You expected it to resemble a judicial trial or a research workshop? Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that knowledge isn’t flowing between science and technology policy researchers and practitioners.

2 Responses to “Science and Technology Policy Researchers and Practice: Do They Inform Each Other?”

  1. Will Thomas Says:

    Interesting to see this written up by non-historians. For a view from the academics’ side of things, I’ve written up each of the articles from the Focus section for my history of science blog:


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  3. David Bruggeman Says:

    Thanks, Will. I recommend anyone who has even a mild interest in history of science to check out his blog. Natural and social science disciplines aren’t the only ones that inform science and technology policies. Let’s bust out of our self-imposed disciplinary prisons every once in a while.