The Problems with Calling for a Science President

October 30th, 2007

Posted by: admin

The cover article in the current (October 2007) issue of Seed magazine is titled “Dr. President.” It’s the clearest example of what I see as a fair amount of optimistic thinking about the intersection of science and presidential politics. Written by Chris Mooney, who tread a lot of similar – but more partisan – ground in his book The Republican War on Science, the article reads like many laundry lists of policy prescriptions for the next president that tend to appear (and are typically ignored) in the months leading to a Presidential election. I helped put together one such list while working at the National Academies. Carl Zimmer, writing in The Loom, noted a similarly idealistic call for a Presidential debate on science issues. (And like he said, why is it in a section called “On Faith”? Because Matthew Chapman – the one making the appeal – is an atheist? A science debate will be narrow enough without restricting it by framing it with religion)

Working in Washington, I’m encouraged by the optimism (due to its scarcity here), but really feel the need to temper this optimism about having a ’science president’ or a public debate on science issues by critiquing some of the underlying assumptions common to the arguments, and others, that often come with calls for a science president, or presidential leadership on science. Mooney and Chapman aren’t the first, nor will they be the last, to make these arguments. But they will fall on deaf ears, much like Senator Clinton’s recent outline of her science and technology policy goals (note what ended up dead last).

Here are a few notions that need a re-assessment:

Good science underlies sound policy, so it should matter politically

It’s been at least two presidential election cycles since any serious discussions of policy choices were a significant part of political campaigns. Watch a Sunday morning news show. It’s never about what would be best for the country, but what is best for whichever campaign is the topic of conversation. If the importance of science policy choices is to be made part of a presidential campaign, the question, or dare I say it, the framing, should be how to make science something that gains valuable endorsements (nobody is going to care who Scientist and Engineers for America will endorse, if for no better reason than maybe 200 people know of the group, much less who leads it). So the arguments for “reason, logic, a consideration of fact, and healthy skepticism” Mooney makes may guide someone to better governance, but they won’t do a thing for political accomplishments, absent some demonstration that it will increase political capital or poll numbers. Candidates need to be convinced of how science and technology policy can get them the job before they can be bothered with how they can help them perform the job.

The President makes a lot of difference in science and technology policy

In “Dr. President” we are told that “The next President of the United States of America will control a $150 billion annual research budget, 200,000 scientists, and 38 major research institutions and all their related labs. This president will shape human endeavors in space, bioethics debates and the energy landscape of the 21st Century.” Given the diffuse nature of the national research enterprise, with many agencies administering various buckets of money and groups of scientists, the notion that the President can control the bench scientist in the same way that they can control their science adviser doesn’t hold (nor would it be welcome in most scientific communities). Assuming that we had a science friendly President (or at least one who wasn’t science hostile or science indifferent), there are plenty of other people that influence the research enterprise to assume that wholesale changes could be made by one person. Anyone who has followed the various campaigns for doubling the budgets of various science agencies should remember the time and political support required to make that happen.

While this can be frustrating, it does allow for a relative lack of government oversight that scientists have traditionally welcomed and encouraged. They don’t want to be micromanaged, which makes things like the stem cell research moratorium a particular problem for many scientists. But no policy issue is going to be decided solely on the science – nor should it be. After all, this is a democracy, not a peer-reviewed elite community seeking to better understand the world. This leads into my next presumption.

Science is democratic

While the sociologist of science Robert Merton wrote of a natural affinity between science and democracy (“A Note on Science and Democracy.” Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1, 115-126, 1942.) because democracy allows for greater scientific freedom, that democratic affinity runs only one way. When arguing for science to inform policy, very often there is a presumption that the science dictates a particular policy outcome. This leads to frustration when the chosen policy outcome is different from the one ‘dictated’ by the science. If we are to really encourage the discussion of science and its implications that Mooney writes of in his Seed article in order to re-energize democracy, we must be willing to acknowledge that sometimes the decisions may not match what the science suggests (putting aside how many arguments can be had over what exactly the science suggests). To ignore the science is not the same as to obstruct, redact or suppress it. The crux of a democracy is not to make good choices, but for the people to make those choices.

Both Mooney and Chapman make good arguments for their goals, and describe situations that would be welcome in a political campaign (though I am chronically fatigued by the debates – and I’ve only watched the coverage). But policy discussions are not what makes a difference in political campaigns (though I think they should), and they write as though they do. Policy discussions don’t attract media coverage, and the debates are ridiculously meta- about particular policies – focusing not on the policies, but on what they mean to the campaigns. Science and technology policies don’t matter politically, and addressing this should be the focus of those who want a “Dr. President” before they fill out that president’s prescription pad.

4 Responses to “The Problems with Calling for a Science President”

  1. SciBuff Says:

    David Bruggeman,
    That’s a lot to think about. Really it’s too much for me to digest at one time, but it will make good leftovers later on. I think related to your questions of where does science fit with the President or government or democracies, is where does science fit in people’s lives. We the people. Is science a reliable tool like a ruler or a map? Science explains and measures. Is it the lubricant of capitalism? Build your economy with science, or TV advertising. Your choice.

    For me as science moves away from dropping cannon balls off the Tower of Pisa, to mass spectrometers and knockout mice, it becomes less of a visible tool and more of an exercise in faith. How does the internet work, or cell phones? I will never know. I’ll never really feel like I understand. Science has become so good that it has become more invisible to me with each passing year. The more we learn, the less I know. The less I know, the more I have to trust. I don’t always feel trusting.

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  3. Hilary Burrage Says:

    Robert Merton had a point, even though science translated into policy is never ‘pure’ science; it always becomes the art of the possible, in policy / political terms.

    Nonetheless, science policy needs to be based on evidence or, if not evidence, reasoning. How else can people (electors) decide if they think it’s acceptable?

    Likewise, rational / scientific thought has a lot to offer other decisions too. We know that final outcomes will rest on extra-scientific as well as scientific considerations, but as much clarity as possible is essential… especially with the sorts of mighty budget and impact the USA has with expenditure in science.

    Let the debate and clarity be as transparent as possible, please. And let the media understand this is important, in whatever terms they choose. The ongoing discussion as above is, indeed, a good example of how things should be!

    Best, Hilary

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  5. David Bruggeman Says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve posted Hilary. I want to make the point that a presidential campaign (and coverage of it) is not framed in terms of what would make sound policy, but what would get a particular person elected. Since science and technology policy is not considered an issue that will get someone elected, arguments about how good science and technology policy (or science and innovation to reflect the campaign framing) would be good for the country are not going to get attention. Not from the media, and not from the candidates.

    As a community, we need to address how to make this important for those that campaign and those who cover campaigns. That’s a different question from why this is important for the country. I wish it weren’t, but it is. I don’t have a ready answer, because even when trying to link science and technology policy with other issues that have traction in campaigns and the press (Iraq war, terrorism, health care), science and technology are not the first things that come to mind.

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  7. Hilary Burrage Says:

    And I don’t disagree with anything at all you say in your response, David, except… It’s two-way; the media as such do have the capacity to create Frankenstein, and they sometimes use it! If they don’t like a politician, they can themselves start a debate which is both anti-science and anti- that person.

    I’m not a resident of the USA (being a Brit..), but I have watched in awful fascination the development, transmitted largely from your side of the Pond to mine, of creationism and related ideas. (I’ve blogged on it, and on what I see as the economic influences behind it…) And that’s before we get to stem cell research, nuclear, and all those other things that we’d like Dr President to address in an accountably reponsible and open way.

    However, maybe the pendulum is swinging a bit towards a more sensible debate? I heard the address by the UK’s Science Minister at the Science Council last night (Ian Pearson, 6 November 2007) and he was very anxious, as I understood him, to emphasise that the way forward must be a conjunction of positions between the scientists, the government and the people. Science in / and Society seemed to be his theme!

    And so I guess say all of us?!