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Liberating Science from Politics

The notion that science can be used to reconcile political disputes is fundamentally flawed

Daniel Sarewitz

A Better Role for Science

Until the disputes about values that underlie environmental controversies are brought openly into the democratic arena and adjudicated as such, science will often just make matters worse. One clear indication of this unhealthy dynamic can be seen when Congress holds hearings where dueling scientists provide technical testimony in support of competing sides of a controversy. Another sign is when reporters and public interest groups begin to call on scientists to support one side or another of a controversy. In such cases, opposing scientific views become a proxy for the conflicting values that underlie the conflict.

One provocative way to nip this pathology in the bud would be to demand that all scientists who are willing to make scientific statements on behalf of a particular political position also indicate their own partisan preferences. Another would be for scientists to impose on themselves a voluntary "quiet period" during which they will not participate in the spectacle of dueling scientists. Lawmakers and stakeholders, with no scientists to hide behind, would thus have no choice but to proclaim their relevant interests and values explicitly.

If such suggestions sound frivolous or even downright irrational, consider that most important political actions, ranging from the Marshall Plan and civil rights legislation to the response to Hurricane Katrina and even the allocation of research and development funds, are made primarily on the basis not of science but of social aspirations codified through political action. Indeed, when most of the nation's environmental laws were enacted during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the state of the relevant science was at best rudimentary. What made these laws possible was a political consensus—one that has since disintegrated, even as our scientific understanding has advanced tremendously.

And what then would become of science? One part of the answer is: nothing. It will still be there, in the background, along with all the other influences on people's knowledge, political interests and behavior. And science will continue to alert us to problems that we might not otherwise easily perceive. The crucial point, though, is that the most positive role for science in support of decision making comes only after values are clarified through political debate and after goals for the future are agreed on through democratic means. Science can then help us chart the path to our goals, and it can help us monitor how well we are following that path. Indeed, it is only when science is thus liberated from politics that appropriate priorities for scientific research in support of our social aspirations can actually emerge.

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