News: News Archives
Former U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert Explores the Role of Science in Policymaking
Science has a critical role in many high-profile national issues, and that makes it incumbent on scientists to engage openly and effectively with policymakers and to know their own strengths and limits, former U.S. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert said in the 2007 William D. Carey Lecture.
In an address delivered at the 32nd AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, Boehlert urged scientists to be open about the scientific uncertainty inherent in many issues. Further, he said, they should be keep a keen awareness about what is a science question and what is a policy question, and recognize that science is only one factor in a complex democratic process.
"I would hope that, beyond learning the specifics about a member [of Congress] or a piece of legislation, that delving into the policy world would lead to a greater appreciation of all the conflicting pressures, concerns, ideas and issues that politicians have to study, juggle and, ideally, master as part of their job," Boehlert said.
"If scientists are going to be more effective participants in the policy arena, they have to do their homework and learn more about the policy world," he added. "It should go without saying that policymakers have to do their homework about science... Unfortunately, I don't know how to force anyone in either the scientific or political communities to do their homework."
The late William Carey, for whom the annual lecture is named, served as executive officer of AAAS from 1975-1987 and had a pivotal role in shaping the environment in which U.S. science and technology grew and prospered. He was the catalyst for the study of research and development in the federal budget and other initiatives which serve as the foundation for many of today's AAAS programs. The lectureship, started in 1989, recognizes individuals who exemplify Carey's leadership in articulating public policy issues that arise from S&T fields.
Boehlert retired from Congress when his 12th term expired in January, and he is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. During 24 years of service to his district in upstate New York, he earned a reputation for independence, moderation, and thoughtful leadership. He was regarded as the principal Republican environmentalist in the House of Representatives and as steadfast advocate of federal investment in science and technology.
Under Boehlert's leadership from 2001-2007, the House Science Committee played a central role in the formation of the new Department of Homeland Security, including the creation of the Science and Technology Directorate and the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency. He was one of the key congressional leaders who requested the seminal 2005 National Academy of Sciences report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which recommended increased investments in research and education; in that and other efforts, he helped to raise the issue of U.S. economic competitiveness to the forefront of the national policy agenda.
Boehlert's lecture, delivered on 3 May in Washington, D.C., offered insights derived from his time in Congress, along with a generous dash of homespun humor. Much of his talk focused on the role science, and scientists, play in policy-making.
"Scientists should participate actively, even avidly, in policy debates," he said. "Indeed, both as educated citizens and as professionals with relevant knowledge—not to mention as beneficiaries of public support—scientists ought to feel obligated to contribute to policy making—in their communities, in their states, in the nation, and even in the wider world."
But with so many high-profile issues related to science, and with policy-making so polarized, Boehlert sees a danger that science can become politicized—and potentially damaged.
"Describing your position as the only scientifically valid stance is perhaps the only remaining way to seem more 'pure,' more convincing, more above the fray than whomever you're sparring with," he explained. "This can frankly be a mixed blessing for scientists and science. On the one hand, it provides an opening for scientists. Politicians want, or at least think they want, to hear from scientists because they're faced with so many technical decisions and because science is such a powerful... way to frame policy questions.
"On the other hand, this very framing means that the way to attack an opponent's position
is to attack the science that is supposedly supporting it, to charge that it isn't real science... This phenomenon has made science a weapon as much as a tool in policy-making, not an especially healthy development. We run the risk of loving science to death by first putting it on a pedestal, and then ripping it down."
To counter this dynamic, Boehlert said, scientists and policymakers should work together to be more careful about how science is used in policy debates.
"In most cases," he explained, "science has to inform policy-making, but it isn't determinative. Pretending that science is going to settle a dispute that is really about values or money or anything else just leads to muddled thinking and distorted debates that are damaging to both science and policy in the long run."
Boehlert expressed concern about recent articles by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney [in Science and the Washington Post urging that scientists learn to "frame" their material in more persuasive ways. Boehlert said he didn't disagree with their specific advice on climate change, stem cells and evolution, but said he feared scientists might over-generalize from those examples.
Nisbet and Mooney, he said, are "basically offering advice on how scientists should frame arguments on what are largely policy questions—what to do about climate change, whether to support stem cell research—not science questions." When it comes to science issues, Boehlert said, policy-makers "need to hear as much scientific information from as many angles as possible, not carefully framed, focus-group-tested, policy arguments."
Similarly, he urged that scientists be open and transparent about uncertainty—and that policymakers understand that uncertainty is inevitable in many science-related issues.
"Uncertainty is not always a reason to defer action," he said. "I have long cited former [New Jersey] Governor [Thomas] Kean's line from the 1980s about acid rain. He said: 'If all we do is continue to study the problem, we're going to end up with the best-documented environmental disaster in history.' But the fact that politicians may misinterpret uncertainty or that interest groups may misuse it—a pattern set by the tobacco industry, as many have documented—that is not a reason for scientists to mask uncertainty. That will only backfire...
"You need to understand that the critical swing votes on any difficult policy issue are not going to be the loud-mouths at either end of the political spectrum. The key votes are going to come from moderate Democrats and Republicans who are more likely to do their homework on the details of an issue. And to retain your credibility with them, putting aside all the other reasons, scientists have to be open and clear about uncertainty."
The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy is regarded as the premier event of its kind in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. The 32nd annual Forum, held just a few blocks from the White House on 3-4 May, attracted some 450 policymakers from government, education, industry, and other fields.
Edward W. Lempinen
23 May 2007