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Ogmius Newsletter

Ogmius Editorial

Good for the Goose...

Photo of a gooseIt has become fashionable for combatants engaged in political debate on topics such as global warming, genetically modified organisms, and stem cell research to highlight the negative consequences for both science and policy making of politicizing science.

For example, in the United States Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) recently issued a report alleging that the administration of George Bush systematically abuses science in support of its ideological agenda.  And the Hoover Institution published a book – Politicizing Science – which disparages the alleged misuse of science in support of environmental regulation.

Making sense of these sorts of accusations is difficult because the accusers are typically far from disinterested observers.  Mr. Waxman is engaged in political battle with the Bush administration and many of the authors of essays in the Hoover book are long-time opponents of environmental regulations, as is the Hoover Institution in general.

“Junk science,” it seems, is merely that science which your political opponents use to support their position.  It is ironic that expressions of concern about the politicization of science have become another way for ideologues to advance their particular agendas.  In other words, we are witnessing the politicizing of the politicization of science.

But before dismissing these claims, it should be noted that people from diverse ideological perspectives agree that the relationship of science and policy is increasingly threatened by the politicization of science – and the consequences are serious.

For example, when a recent paper in the journal Climate Research argued that 20th century climate variations were unexceptional from a millennial perspective, it was no surprise that advocacy groups opposed to the Kyoto Protocol hailed the research as “sound science,” while advocacy groups in support of Kyoto called it “junk science.”  More troubling is that within the scientific community itself, how individual members of the scientific community have evaluated the scientific merit of this paper correlates perfectly with their public expressions of support or opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.  “Scientific” discussion among academics largely devolved into bitter ad hominem attacks.  From the perspective of the public or policy makers, the scientific debate and political debate on climate change have become indistinguishable.  As a result, rather than contributing to the development of creative and feasible policy options, climate science has become little more than a mechanism of marketing competing political agendas.

If the public or policy makers begin to believe that scientific findings are simply an extension of a scientist’s political beliefs, then scientific information will play an increasingly diminished role in policy.  This will be tragic because scientific information often (but not always) matters for policy making.

In all but the most trivial of cases science cannot dictate specific policy outcomes.  Rather scientific understandings are frequently either intrinsically uncertain or diverse enough to be used to justify a range of competing political agendas.  In such situations the standard response is to call for more scientific research (“sound” or “objective” of course) in hopes that uncertainties will shrink or a political consensus will emerge.

In reality, new research frequently increases uncertainties and simultaneously provides a steady replenishment of scientific ammunition for all sides engaged in political conflict.  Rather than political consensus, what emerges is typically gridlock.  We have, in the words of Daniel Sarewitz, an “excess of objectivity.”

One way out of this predicament is to recognize that in situations of gridlock policy makers need new options, not more science.  This lesson has been missed from the successful response to stratospheric ozone depletion.  After scientists discovered in the early 1970s that human-produced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could harm the ozone layer, it was not scientific information that led to political consensus.  Introduction in the mid-1970s of creative policy options that distinguished essential from non-essential uses of CFCs both depoliticized the issue and stimulated the search for chemical substitutes, even as ozone science remained uncertain.  In this case, scientific consensus about policy options followed political consensus.

Expanding the options available to policy makers is contrary to the approach most advocates and scientists have taken in the policy process.  Political advocacy is all about reducing the scope of choices, often to a single preferred vision.  And the many scientists who eschew advocacy typically seek to provide information and stay far removed from any explicit discussion of policy options.  For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was formed to provide guidance to policy makers, by design, does not discuss policy options.

For the protection of science and the constructive role that it can play in policy, we desperately need organizations and individuals who are willing to expand the range of options available to policy makers.  And usually there are many options consistent with sometimes internally conflicting and uncertain scientific understandings.  This was once the approach of the U.S. government’s Office of Technology Assessment, but Congress, in its questionable wisdom, terminated the agency in 1995.  More organizations and individuals working from this perspective would provide a clear alternative to those from across the political spectrum who seek to politicize science in support of their narrow interests.

Politicization of science is a problem, irrespective of the ideology of those doing the politicizing.  Our scientific enterprise is too important to allow putative concerns about the politicization of science to become just another weapon in partisan battle.

Roger A. Pielke, Jr.