What is Science’s Rightful Place?

January 28th, 2009

Posted by: admin

ScienceBlogs wants to answer the above question in light of the following phrase from the President’s inaugural address:

“We will restore science to its rightful place”

Never mind that the phrasing suggests this rightful place existed at some time in the past, the folks at Scienceblogs and SEED Magazine are soliciting contributions of what is the rightful place for science.  Watch the wishful thinking take flight.

13 Responses to “What is Science’s Rightful Place?”

  1. docpine Says:

    My personal experience is that the place of science was kind of the same under the Bush admin as the Clinton admin (people pick the science that supports their policy position, big science gets all the attention and bucks) so it doesn’t need to be restored to its “rightful place.” As others have pointed out, for “rightful place” you are either talking dollars to scientific research (somehow the discourse is never about “what scientific research, or “how is the public specifically involved in deciding”), or the use of science in policy.

    Nevertheless, we should look to students of science and policy studies to answer the question of “what is the rightful place of science in policy” based on the logic of asking the expert scientists. It seems asymmetric to say you need to ask scientists about public policy, but you shouldn’t ask experts on the study of the scientific enterprise about what the role of the scientific enterprise should be. I have long noted this dichotomy, especially prevalent, in my experience, in the biological and physical sciences.

    And if we’re going there (to the literature) here’s one of my faves ““The recognition of natural systems as complex and dynamic entails moving to a science based on unpredictability, incomplete control, and a plurality of legitimate perspectives. Uncertainty is not banished but managed, and values are not presupposed but are made explicit. The model for scientific argument is changing form a formalized deduction to an interactive dialogue. The paradigmatic science is no longer one whose explanations are unrelated to space, time and process; the historical dimension, including human reflection on past and future change, is becoming an integral part of a scientific characterization of nature and our place in it.” Funtowicz and Ravetz (1994).

    For those not familiar with this paper, what they call “post normal science” requires an extended peer community, participating in quality assurance and the problem-solving process, for its proper functioning. They suggest that a particularly difficult area will be ensuring the quality of post-normal science, which will depend increasingly on trust and integrity of the individual scientists.

    Perhaps more interesting than the “rightful place” would be “do our institutions and processes reflect the changing needs of doing “post-normal science?”

    Funtowicz and Ravetz. 1994. Uncertainty, complexity and post-normal science. Env. Tox and Chem. 13(12):1881-1885.

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  3. David Bruggeman Says:

    While your points are good, there’s an important question left out (or at least downplayed): what does the public have to say in all of this? I think they are the ones to make the decisions about the role of the scientific enterprise in government (and the role of the government in the scientific enterprise. Then we can ask those who study the scientific enterprise to see how best to achieve the desired goals.

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  5. docpine Says:

    So true, but in our form of government we depend on interest groups to represent the views of “the public”. And different interest groups have different views as to both. Hence our currently fuzzy situation.

    If you asked an employee of a high tech industry or a family farmer about the role of science and what science should be supported, you might get a different answer. Perhaps we should have a governing body overseeing science made up of representatives of some variety of stakeholders in the work that sciences produces.. patients, farmers, businesses, etc.

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  7. David Bruggeman Says:

    Sadly, I’m sufficiently optimistic that I think we should depend on our elected officials to represent the views of the public.

    I take it you consider the Congress to be insufficiently staffed with representatives of those whose work relies on the products of scientific and technological activity?

    In short, we need a new body? We can’t do anything with the ones we have?

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  9. docpine Says:

    Funny you should mention that .. I was once assigned to work on a congressional staff. while I was there various science agencies attempted to bamboozle me. If I weren’t a scientist, I would have possibly been taken in by science hype. The allocation of research funding is too diverse and too obtuse to be given serious attention by most congressional staffers. Of course committee staffs tend to be chosen from the usual suspects with the usual biases- on some kind of revolving door program with those who benefit from governmental largesse and they understand the program, although perhaps their understanding is like a fish in a fishbowl.. accurate but most of the world occurs outside the fishbowl.

    And to your point, some congressional efforts have attempted to wrest control and make research more useful to real people. For example, there was a grant program called Fund for Rural America that was specifically designed to be useful to rural Americans. This program had a short but useful life and in my view was beaten back by forces of “scientists know best what you publics really need.”

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  11. David Bruggeman Says:

    So, what do you think of the set-asides, like Small Business Innovation Research, or programs like EPSCoR – Experimental Program for Stimulating Competitive Research. These try to address issues of resource allocation. There is also the various extension programs, which seem to be more connected to your example of focus on end users. What’s your take on those?

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  13. Joel Says:

    In your comments, you seem to defer to the will of the people for establishing scientific priorities. I agree that their elected representatives should consider their views, but do you feel that the majority opinion on any scientific issue should have any bearing on what is correct?

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  15. docpine Says:

    SBIR and EPSCor (I have only worked with SBIR) seem to be building research capacity either at universities or with small business. My concern is more “to what end?”. What are the priorities and do they make any sense within and across agencies? If people want research to cure a disease, do those funds disappear into investigator -initiated basic research on the fundamentals of that disease, or does the government have an overall plan to work on the disease, with relevant epidemiological studies, possible causes rooted out, etc.

    I am a big fan of the agricultural model with the land-grant colleges working on practical things of value to people of this country. Research, extension and education are part of the mission. Ideally, stakeholders help determine use of research funding at these schools. However some in the science community have an ideological attachment to the concept of investigator initiated research and basic science, and have attempted to reduce the so-called formula funds to have more investigator initiated competitive grants. Having served and organized these panels of scientists, I can only tell you that the claims of utility for the research are often not challenged by anyone- and there is nary a stakeholder in the process.

    This is not to question the motives of anyone, the investigators have to do what they have to do to get grants. It is the unquestioned assumption that the only way to solve real world problems is to have scientists alone decide on what are the best approaches that I question. For one thing they tend to drift off into what is “cool to do” in their field at a given time (for perfectly legitimate reasons, the publish in disciplinary journals and thereby feed their families ) and not what is the best investment for government funds nor what is the most useful to stakeholders.

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  17. David Bruggeman Says:


    I consider scientific priorities and scientific issues different things (especially when you throw in ‘correct’ as you did). If the public is funding research, then I think it appropriate that they have a say in what the research priorities are. I do not think the public should dictate what science is in the sense of what scientific facts are. If a country wishes to not fund research in a particular area, I think that’s an acceptable choice from a democratic (small d) perspective.


    To your first point, I think Harold Varmus’ new memoir speaks to those challenges in the National Institutes of Health, and might be worth a read. I, too, think the ag extension model is admirable, and would like to see it used elsewhere (the Manufacturing Extension Partnership has had too many obstacles to be that successful, as it’s faced pretty consistent Republican opposition).

    In terms of stakeholder representation, would some form of expert review (as opposed to peer review) stand a chance of establishing a beachhead against the mission creep of researchers?

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  19. docpine Says:

    I will take a look at Varmus’ memoir it looks interesting. Fundamentally when our country really wanted to get something done, we got the best people together and organized to develop something important (the Manhattan Project). Now we seem to believe in the “confetti” school of science -if you throw enough money at enough different agencies, then something good will happen. Is low carbon or no carbon energy technology development important? Guess..not..really..

    If it were we would assess the technologies we have, identify why they are not being used whether it’s a technological breakthrough that’s needed or some other intervention (say wind in Wyoming, transmission lines) and then put funds toward fixing the problem, whether research is needed or just plain old infrastructure investments.. or..

    The first thing I would do if I were the Queen of Federal Science is to make each agency clarify what it is doing research on and make it stick to what it says. for example some years ago I had a tour of Lawrence Berkeley Labs DOE- who were working on the human genome. Innocently I said, why you and not NIH? They said that at one time folks were working on genetic changes due to radiation and it “just grew” from there. The whole enterprise of science in the federal government is overlapping and duplicative.. so I would start there.

    First step, each agency gets a clear and distinct research turf.
    Second, each agency has board of stakeholders to determine research priorities within that turf
    Third, the agency thinks about whether investigator initiated random is the best way to solve real world problems or whether a strategic thoughtful portfolio would be better.
    Fourth, if the agency uses investiagor initiated research proposals, it has a separate reality check (practitioners tend to get drowned out in my experience on panels with mixed practitioners and researchers) function where real world people on the ground dealing with the problem are asked if the research would be helpful (not their lobbyists or representatives).

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  21. David Bruggeman Says:

    It sounds like you are agitating for a strict problem orientation in the federal funding of research, which to me is a radical shift for most – but not all – federal agencies (smaller shops seem more problem oriented in their research, like DARPA used to be).

    I’m for greater mixes throughout the research portfolio: more blue sky, more problem-oriented, more multi and interdisciplinary. My suspicion is that pushing more (but not exclusively) problem-oriented research would help with the inter- and multidisciplinary work.

    Of course, we’re both spitballing from a presumption that changes in federal funding patterns would be sufficient to shift incentive and reward structures in universities. We both know better.

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  23. docpine Says:

    I’d just like us to be honest about what is basic and what isn’t and if it is supposed to be applied, to have the appliers involved throughout the process. But we (I mostly) have wandered far from the original topic of this post the “rightful place” of science; I guess the point I was trying to make is that if you organize science to not involve the appliers, then it is logical to assume that the appliers might not be too enthused about the products that they don’t see as useful, and then are accused of not using “the best science” in policy -I have seen this cycle more times than I care to. The “rightful place” can only be a function of the real scientific enterprise with the flaws I pointed out above; and not an idealized scientific enterprise that lives only in the minds of folks who are submerged in what I term the science fishbowl above.

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  25. David Bruggeman Says:

    We have drifted from topic (and I followed), but I found the conversation useful. I think your hypothesis has merit, but I wonder if it has a narrow sphere of application – those areas of knowledge that are more explicitly connected to public policy (that is, I don’t see your hypothesis holding for more traditional disciplinary questions or topics because the appliers are a bit more engaged with those generating knowledge). This exploration seems worthy of another post or two. Hopefully you’re willing to follow.