Francesca Grifo: The Long, Complex Relationship Between Science and U.S. Democracy

Science has gone hand-in-hand with democracy since the founding of the republic, and it continues to be a powerful tool for helping to promote wise public policy, a former AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow said in the 2011 Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture.

Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, noted the fascination with science by the Founding Fathers, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. She traced the use—and sometime abuse—of science by succeeding generations of politicians and stressed that science breeds the free thinking and openness to ideas that lie at the heart of a democratic society.

Francesca Grifo

Francesca Grifo

“Science and democracy have been inextricably intertwined for a very long time,” Grifo said. They have cross-pollinated each other, she said, “and this has largely been a good thing and, in many ways, our only hope for the future.”

Grifo is the first former fellow to deliver the annual Barnard lecture, which is organized by the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program. The lecture is endowed by the international law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton to honor Barnard, who had been counsel to the firm, for his contributions to environmental and health law and in recognition of his many years of service as member of the selection committee for the fellowships at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Grifo spoke at the AAAS Auditorium on 11 July to a standing-room crowd, most of them current or former fellows.

Many of the Founding Fathers “used scientific ideas, concepts, and analogies to formulate and support their ideas about government,” Grifo said. They believed that democracy required competent representatives who had some knowledge of the subjects on which they were going to legislate. Madison also spoke of taking precautions to keep legislators “virtuous whilst they continue to hold the public trust.”

By the time Abraham Lincoln was in the Oval Office, Grifo said, science-based agencies or their precursors were starting to appear, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Land Grant Act established colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts that were to mature into major research institutions. Lincoln himself was “a science guy,” Grifo said. He is the only president to hold a U.S. patent (for a device to lift boats over shoals), was fascinated with the telegraph, and spoke presciently about the potential for harnessing the wind as a source of power.

The expansion of federal agencies that rely on science continued after the Civil War and particularly during the past 40 years, Grifo said, with the establishment of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the enlargement of the Food and Drug Administration.

Grifo endorsed the conclusion of Sheila Jasanoff, a Harvard University professor of science and technology studies, who has argued that scientists, in their expanding role as advisers, have emerged as a formidable “fifth branch” of government. (Jasanoff, formerly a member of the AAAS Board of Directors, sees their role as distinct from that of the commonly cited “fourth branch” of lobbyists, interest groups, and others who seek to influence the legislative, executive, and judicial branches).

In Grifo’s view, science doesn’t sit above it all, “shining sunlight and showering truth on” the governmental enterprise. Rather, she said, it infuses the whole system. “Everybody uses science,” she said. And how science is used in governance has been a matter of contention for both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades, Grifo said.

Among her examples: Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, lost his security clearance during the administration of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower for what many considered political reasons related to his opposition to the hydrogen bomb. Richard Nixon abolished the White House science advisory council after disagreeing with its conclusions on missile defense and the viability of a commercial supersonic airliner. Jimmy Carter tossed out a Department of Energy study on projected energy needs that undercut his policy agenda. Bill Clinton declined to fund needle-exchange programs to combat HIV/AIDS, despite the recommendations of scientific and medical groups. Grifo said her organization and others had documented a long list of cases during the George W. Bush administration in which scientific evidence had been manipulated, misinterpreted, or suppressed.

Grifo also said some of the ongoing efforts at regulatory reform in Congress are, in fact, meant to undercut the ability of executive branch agencies to use their expertise in implementing health and safety laws.

Reconciling the need for unbiased scientific expertise with the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics will never be easy, and Grifo acknowledged that science itself is an imperfect enterprise. She quoted astronomer Carl Sagan: “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy.”

“The challenge, really, is: How do we preserve a meaningful role for the lay public and their elected representatives in areas of decision-making that are increasingly less accessible to those who lack that specialized knowledge?” Grifo said, citing one of Jasanoff’s concerns.

It will require creating a scientifically literate populace, Grifo said, or at least a populace that appreciates the values that science has to offer quite aside from the data it generates.

Honesty, skepticism, respect for evidence, openness, accountability, an appetite for a good argument?all are characteristic of the scientific mind and essential for the promotion of a democratic society, Grifo said. While science is rarely the only basis for a policy decision, she said, it is essential that policy-makers and legislators not try to fudge or tamper with the scientific evidence that informs decision-making.

Again citing Sagan, Grifo said good science requires an exquisite balance between two competing instincts: skepticism about all hypotheses and, at the same time, a great openness to new ideas.

Scientists must be willing to admit that they can be wrong, she said, and willing to do more listening. She made a plea for more involvement in the political process by scientists who can serve as “baloney detectors” and help elevate the substance of the discourse.

While there always will be tension between science and politics, Grifo said, scientists have to embrace that tension and ensure that the work of their government colleagues is respected. She applauded the effort by the administration of President Barack Obama to have all federal agencies draft scientific integrity policies. “This is an issue that the scientific community took on,” Grifo said, with a nudge from her organization and others.

“Science is not a mask behind which policy makers can do anything that special interests or ideology dictate,” Grifo concluded. “The rightful place for science is as the basis for broad participatory and transparent conversations about how to solve these very difficult challenges we face just as our forefathers and, I would add, out foremothers would have wanted.”


Learn more about the annual Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture.