Better Approaches to Science Policy
Richard E. Sclove
Reprinted with permission from Science magazine, Volume 279, Number
5355, Issue of 27 February 1998, p. 1283. © 1998 by The American
Association for the Advancement of Science. Readers may view, browse,
and/or download this material for temporary copying purposes only,
provided these uses are for noncommercial personal purposes. Except as
provided by law, this material may not be further reproduced, distributed,
transmitted, modified, adapted, performed, displayed, published, or sold
in whole or in part, without prior written permissionfrom AAAS.
Who should sit at the table when science policy is being decided? Across the
higher echelons of U.S. government, the long-standing norm is to invite
scientific leaders, but no one else who will be affected or who might have
an illuminating alternative perspective.
For example, to help frame a year-long effort to develop a post-Cold War U.S.
science policy, the House Science Committee on 23 October convened an elite
group: the presidents of the National Academies of Science and Engineering,
representatives from the Council on Competitiveness, leaders of the
Sandia and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, the president of MIT,
and so on. Notably absent were any representatives from the many grassroots,
worker, and public-interest organizations concerned with science policy.
There were no social scholars of science, no proponents of alternative
science policies (from within the science community or without), and only a
solitary science policy critic.
This event's restricted roster was hardly anomalous. For example, in 1992 and
1993--when Democrats controlled Congress--the House Science Committee
organized 30 hearings on a comprehensive National Competitiveness Act. Among
120 invited witnesses, there was not one from an environmental, defense
conversion, or labor organization commenting on a major piece of legislation
with ecological, employment, and other social implications. In the Executive
Branch, the composition of high-level science advisory panels--such as the
President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National
Science Board--is similarly constricted.
The problem with exclusively elite, insider approaches to science
policy-making is that they fly in the face of inescapable realities: (i) All
citizens support science through their tax dollars and experience the
profound consequences of science, both good and bad. (ii) In a democracy,
those who experience the consequences of an activity and those who pay for it
ordinarily expect a voice in decisions. (iii) Scientific leaders have no
monopoly on expertise, nor do they have a privileged ethical standpoint, for
evaluating the social consequences of science and of science policies. (iv)
Nonscientists already do contribute to science and science policy (for example,
women's organizations have redirected medical research agendas to reduce
gender biases). (v) Elite-only approaches are antithetical to the open,
vigorous, and creative public debate on which democracy, policy-making, and
science all thrive. (vi) There is a danger that public support for science
will erode if other perspectives are excluded. (vii) With the Cold War
concluded, it is time for science policy to welcome new voices and fresh
ideas for addressing the social needs of the 21st century.
There are proven methods that use broadened representation to inform
and improve decisions. The Swedish government's Council for Planning and
Coordination of Research includes a majority of nonscientists and is noted for
promoting innovative interdisciplinary research programs. Japan, Germany, and
other European nations have pioneered processes fostering collaboration
between industrial engineers, university scientists, workers, and end-users
in developing new technologies. Dutch universities advance social
responsiveness via a decentralized national network of "science shops"
that address questions posed directly by community and worker groups,
public-interest organizations, and local governments. For a decade, the
Danish government has appointed panels of everyday citizens to cross-examine
a range of experts and stakeholders, to deliberate, and then to announce
nonbinding science policy recommendations at a national press conference.
A 1989 Danish citizens' panel on the Human Genome Project seconded expert
support for basic genetics research, but called for more research on the
interplay between environmental factors and genetic inheritance and on the
social consequences of science, while influencing the Parliament to prohibit
the use of genetic screening information in employment and insurance
decisions. This carefully structured, participatory process is already being
emulated in other countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan, the
Netherlands, and Switzerland, and has undergone an independent pilot-scale
demonstration in the United States.
Experiences such as these can light the way toward U.S. science policies that
are more socially responsive and responsible, more widely supported, and more
consonant with the tradition of openness that is the true lifeblood of science
and a healthy democracy.
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