US: Navigating conflict between science and policymakers

Drawing on his experience as a biologist, president emeritus of Stanford University and former editor-in-chief of Science magazine, Donald Kennedy probes conflict between the conduct of science and influences of (a security-focussed, neo-conservative) government, in a paper published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley. In "Science and its discontents: An evolutionary tale", Kennedy discusses three current conflicts: new security and secrecy regimes that seek control of science; religiously derived moral viewpoints that aim to limit scientific research; and the shaping and censoring of scientific findings for political gain. The full paper is available on the CSHE website.

All three policy issues, Kennedy argues, are rooted in growing public mistrust of science and its purposes, but the actions of the current presidential administration: "It should be no surprise that this is common practice, because the President has signalled his disinterest in serious science and scientific opinion from the very beginning. One major science appointment in the administration after another has been delayed, or given to a candidate with few qualifications save political loyalty, or given to a scientist with little or no access to the President or his cabinet officers."

A set of rules is needed, he concludes, based on common understandings: "First, policies resting on scientific or technological issues, like all public policies, are decided in the end not just by experts, but by a variety of people and interests. Second, objective scientific results, tested by repeated efforts at confirmation, are necessary (though not sufficient) elements in such policy decisions. Third, if the scientists responsible for those findings are controlled or silenced by particular policy interests, or committed in advance to any particular category of policy outcome, the resulting decisions are likely to be wrong. If adopted in advance of the installation of the next administration, such a set of rules could be seen a forward-looking improvement in governance, rather than as yet another criticism of what has been going on in this one."

Full paper on the CSHE site