Sarewitz on California Proposition 71

October 26th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Time, ASU’s Dan Sarewitz makes the case that issues of science policy ought to trump other considerations in the debate over Proposition 71, a citizen ballot initiative that, among other things, proposes to create a $3 billion fund for stem cell research. Sarewitz observes:

“Proposition 71 would put stem cell research out of the reach of democracy — in a move that would seriously undermine the unwritten social contract that exists between government and science in this country… underpinning this contract is an understanding that scientists are accountable not just to themselves but to society, to democratic processes and, ultimately, to the public will. This core of public accountability has been good for science and for society in three important ways. First, it maintains public trust in science through transparency of the legislative process… Second, it ensures that science responds to changing public interests and values… Third, and perhaps most important, democratic accountability protects the public and the public interest from potential abuses… The last 50 years of rapidly advancing American science shows us that democracy and science can fruitfully coexist, even if the relationship is sometimes contentious. If Californians want to fund stem cell research, they could do so through legislation that preserves the balance between scientific autonomy and democratic values by providing for annual appropriation of funds and accountability to elected officials rather than vested interests. Democracy is hard, but it deserves our protection more than anything else. Even more than science.”

Sarewitz’s argument raises broader questions about the role of citizen initiatives in the context of highly complex issues with profound and long-lasting impacts. On the positive side citizen initiatives allow for individuals to participate directly in the selection of specific policies. But on the negative side the initiative process is essentially a binary process – take or leave the initiative that is presented. There is no give and take compromising that is characteristic of legislating. The ballot initiative process is a funny one, because if you put any option up for a vote, people will invariably take sides. But Sarewitz reminds us that it is important to recognize that sometimes we should take a perspective that allows us to see beyond the “yes or no” and look for a third way.

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