Sarewitz’s New Year’s Resolution for Scientists

obama science

I always appreciate Dan Sarewitz’s take on the social workings of the science biz. When I returned from my Solstice Break, I found this interesting piece on Roger Pielke, Jrs’ blog. Thanks to Roger for posting this and the image above.

One of the things I’ve noticed in the past is that our community (the forestry and natural resources community) may not be linked into the a community that studies the scientific process and how scientific information is used in policy-making (hence the discussion in the planning rule about “consistent with”), and that since there is such a community, their findings should be “taken into account” ;).

Here’s a link directly to Sarewitz’s article.

Here is an excerpt:

As scientists seek to provide policy-relevant knowledge on complex, interdisciplinary problems ranging from fisheries depletion and carbon emissions to obesity and natural hazards, the boundary between the natural and the social sciences has blurred more than many scientists want to acknowledge. With Republicans generally sceptical of government’s ability and authority to direct social and economic change, the enthusiasm with which leading scientists align themselves with the Democratic party can only reinforce conservative suspicions that for contentious issues such as climate change, natural-resource management and policies around reproduction, all science is social science.

The US scientific community must decide if it wants to be a Democratic interest group or if it wants to reassert its value as an independent national asset. If scientists want to claim that their recommendations are independent of their political beliefs, they ought to be able to show that those recommendations have the support of scientists with conflicting beliefs. Expert panels advising the government on politically divisive issues could strengthen their authority by demonstrating political diversity. The National Academies, as well as many government agencies, already try to balance representation from the academic, non-governmental and private sectors on many science advisory panels; it would be only a small step to be equally explicit about ideological or political diversity. Such information could be given voluntarily.

To connect scientific advice to bipartisanship would benefit political debate. Volatile issues, such as the regulation of environmental and public-health risks, often lead to accusations of ‘junk science’ from opposing sides. Politicians would find it more difficult to attack science endorsed by avowedly bipartisan groups of scientists, and more difficult to justify their policy preferences by scientific claims that were contradicted by bipartisan panels.

While I strongly agree that partisanizing is bad for the science biz, and actually, for life in general, I see things a bit differently than Dan. Since scientists, for the most part, determine what is funded and how the questions are framed, putting scientists (if they exist) from different parties on a committee that addresses “the science” brings all those biases into the advisory committee. I would prefer the more open 8 step process I proposed in this earlier blog post.

When Dan says that to Republicans “all science is social science” it seems to imply (I don’t think he meant to do so) that social science is somehow “less than” the other sciences. Rather, I think what Republicans might think is that the scientists who conducted the research did not share their framing of the issue or were not unbiased. One thing I like about social scientists is that mostly they are more honest about the social construction of problems and solutions. I have actually found them, in general, to do less “sleight of science” than the biological or physical folks.

Roger’s post is also worth a read as he explores some additional topics. including:

The issues, however, have not disappeared. A few weeks ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists observed in the case of genetically modified salmon:

Despite what the President might have said about scientific integrity, we’ve seen White House interference on what should be science regulatory decisions.

A list of troubling issues under the Obama Administration where science and politics meet is, well, almost Bush-like, and includes issues related to drilling safety, the muzzling of scientists at USDA and at HHS, clothing political decisions in dodgy scientific claims on the morning after pill and Yucca Mountain, the withholding of scientific information for fear of political fallout … and the list goes on

To me those aren’t “science” decisions.. simply not. They are political decisions that balance different values. “Scientific” information is only one kind to be considered. Partisanizing this by environmental groups seems to have led to a great deal of commotion and angst (and poor public servants required to write “scientific integrity” guidelines), followed by the inevitable disappointment when it turns out.. they are not “science” issues.

What do you think?

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