The Troubled Relationship Between Science and Policy

Map Unavailable

Date(s) - 1/15/199712:00 pm - 1:30 pm


Edited informal remarks given by Charles T. Rubin at the Washington Roundtable on Science and Public Policy on January 15, 1997. Dr. Rubin gratefully acknowledges the support of the Alcoa Foundation for his work in science and public policy.

Dr. Rubin: It is still largely taken for granted that modern natural science has an important public role to play in improving the conditions of human life. We know that, historically, such a role is not to be taken for granted, and we rightly pride ourselves on the enlightened bargain that made such inquiries less threatening to established political orders. If we search for the beginnings of this bargain, in which science is left free to explore nature in return for its effort to make our lives healthier and richer, many roads converge at the works of Francis Bacon, and among them his New Atlantis.

That essay portrays a regime experiencing the benefits of scientific and technological progress. The picture is familiar in many respects; the people are prosperous, relatively enlightened, healthy and concerned for their health. But in one important way it diverges from what we are familiar with, for Bensalem, as the place is called, is effectively governed by a scientific think tank that produces these benefactions, called “Salomon’s House,” or “The College of the Six Days Work.” According to some historians of science, the portrayal of Salomon’s House was an impetus to the creation of the various European Royal Societies whose work and official patronage opened a door to the modern world. While nowhere did those societies develop into rulers in quite the manner Bacon presents, everywhere in the West, and perhaps nowhere more than in the United States, science and politics have become increasingly interdependent. Science, and the technological developments that spring from it, came to be relied on as a main engine for the increasing prosperity that helps make peaceful democratic politics possible, and science for its part increasingly looked to government as a patron. It may have taken Lincoln to actually charter our National Academy, but the likes of Franklin, Jefferson, and J.Q. Adams understood the idea behind it quite clearly.

This relationship does not mean that Presidents consult their science advisors more than their pollsters, but the special place for science in policymaking has come to be impressive nonetheless. There may be a Poet Laureate of the United States, but there is no National Poetry Foundation, no Congressional committees or executive branch offices with “Poetry” in their names, no controversies over how to handle poetry in judicial disputes, no periodic soul searching as to whether our children are sufficiently poetry-literate to meet the demands of the 21st century.

To some scientists, it may be beginning to look as if poetry gets the better deal. For there are signs that the historical accommodation between science and politics is breaking down. Contemporary American scientists face a difficult situation. Never “on top,” as in Bacon’s picture, they have not developed a skill for direct or indirect rule. Their position “on tap” has exposed them to vagaries of liberal democratic politics, so that in recent years, as the political mood and economic picture have changed, scientists may well feel more “tapped out” than “on tap.” Public, federal funding can no longer be counted on at the old levels. Big-ticket science is getting harder to sell, and individual researchers must be wary of the golden fleece, or like unfavorable publicity. The legal and regulatory climates are anti-innovative, and to that extent anti-science. The hereditary enemy, religion, seems to have increasing influence on public affairs. Private support for scientific research from business and industry cannot be counted on. Academic work labors under the ongoing threat of some outbreak of political correctness that will do anything from “freeing” lab animals to creating students who come to class believing that physics is a “masculine” way of thinking.

Most of these problems are outside of the direct control of scientists. But one of the most serious indicators of a growing problem is, I’m sorry to say, very much under their control. I refer to what has come to be called the politicization of science. Politicized science may be a bit like pornography; hard to define in the abstract, but we know it when we see it. Science is politicized when scientists not only use their research to advance a particular, partisan, policy agenda, but mold that research, and interpret its results, in ways that will serve the cause. Politicized science may appear at first merely as a different way of “doing” science. It simply does not accept established canons aiming at objectivity, such as the communalism, disinterestedness, universality, originality, and skepticism outlined in a recent Nature article by John Ziman.(Nature 382, pp. 751-754, 29 August 1996.) Or it may reinterpret those canons.

But in fact politicized science is not an alternative scientific lifestyle; to call it science at all is to stretch the term science to the point of meaninglessness. To the extent modern natural science is defined by methodological and behavioral norms (and contemporary philosophy of science takes this extent to be great), if those norms become confused or disputed, then to the extent there is confusion and disagreement, science no longer exists. If even generally agreed upon new norms take the place of those that aim at objectivity, the resulting activity will be quite different from natural science. And we know such broad changes can indeed happen, as the historical transformation from “natural philosophy” to “natural science” illustrates.

One of the earliest advocates of politicized science I am aware of is Barry Commoner, who practically wrote a definition of the thing in his 1971 book, The Closing Circle. Scientific objectivity, he asserted, is “perhaps illusory.” All science is based on the material interests or social position of those who do it. That being the case, scientists should feel free to use their research to support what they regard as worthy interests. If this means, for example, presenting preliminary results of research to the public prior to peer review, then so be it if the cause demands it.

In blatant self-contradiction, however, Commoner also wrote that eventually, the traditional mechanisms of scientific self-correction would step in and find any errors that result from ignoring those same traditional mechanisms. The problem is obvious: if objectivity is not a standard to which we are going to hold individual researchers, the self-correction mechanisms clearly will not perform their proper functions. Why not, on Commoner’s premises, let my interests determine my judgment of work I am reviewing? If that happens, peer review no longer serves as a bastion against politicization – particularly if ever more highly specialized journals must turn to an ever narrower selection of reviewers, who are likely to know each other’s work already, and have pre-established, journal-specific expectations and norms.

In the context of a liberal democracy such as ours, with a great diversity of interests, and in the context of increasingly specialized scientific research, the politicization of science will produce a pathological condition of “anything goes” – a pathology that is both particularly democratic and particularly dangerous to democracies. Of course, people will continue to call themselves scientists, and gain whatever measure of respect and influence that title garners. A case in point is the antics of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In what except a purely nominal sense are scientists acting as scientists when, for example, they recast their research findings in order to have them conform to a political program? Or, to take an earlier case, when they write and release summaries of the result of meetings before the meeting has ended?

It is extraordinarily telling that in the first instance, the defenders of such activity made little mention of the substance of their argument or traditional norms of conduct when they attempted to justify their actions to the press and public. Instead, they defended themselves largely in terms of what is permitted by IPCC rules and procedures. That this line should be their main recourse is another result of the politicization of science. Just as we negotiate to reconcile conflicting interests, so apparently the IPCC process involves negotiation to determine or interpret the meaning and significance of climate modeling studies.

Indeed one could argue that Rep. Brown’s recent animadversions favoring an understanding of science that drastically reduces its empirical component, is based on the relative ease of reaching a negotiated consensus when recalcitrant facts do not have to be taken into consideration. (“Environmental Science Under Siege: Fringe Science and the 104th Congress.” A report by Representative George Brown to Minority members of the House Committee on Science.) The IPCC process is all about manufacturing such a consensus among researchers, and that makes sense if science is really about interests. Never mind that even that variety of scientific consensus that grows organically over a course of years is in and of itself no guarantor of truth, and is not in and of itself a norm or goal that conduces to objectivity. Manufactured consensus – the vogue for which we may lay at least in part at the feet of politicians – is central to politicized science because it produces an intellectual “safe haven” for those who share common interests and policy goals, and creates the appearance of the kind of unified body of advocates that is useful to interest-based liberal democratic politics.

Policymakers will immediately see the advantage of such a situation for advancing their own agendas. Even in Rep. Brown’s defense of the NASA Arctic ozone hole press conference, there is abundant reason for noting an unhealthy relationship between science and politics in this respect. Brown does not deny the first major charge against NASA, which is that the study was presented as something of sufficiently urgent import as to justify release prior to complete review of the findings. His further claim that “the decision to accelerate the phase-out of CFCs had little or nothing to do with the NASA press release” is, quite simply, incredible given the chronology he proceeds to present. Ten months prior to the NASA release, Gore introduced a Senate Resolution to accelerate phase-out of CFCs. Seven months later, the resolution is reported out of committee in weakened form. Then it sits for three months, going nowhere. Even by stately Senate standards, this is not a record that suggests a high level of urgency or salience. Yet three days after the press conference, Gore can tack the resolution on to a pending bill, and have it pass the Senate, 96-0. Eight days after the press conference, the chemical industry weighs in to accelerate the phase-out, and the Bush administration concurs. If all this is the sheerest coincidence, then so is the trout in the milk.

The Brown critique shows how when professional norms and methodological expectations break down, it is probably inevitable that attempts to expose politicized science will be met with the charge of being politicized science. When this charge begins to stick – and in a significant portion of the public mind, it will stick if the methods of science and their rationale are not vigorously explained and defended – science will lose any remnants of a privileged position in the policy-making process. And deservedly so, for the politicization of science will have transformed it into just another mode of interest articulation.

The apparent contemporary confusion about the extent of scientific misconduct and how best to treat it serves and is served by the politicization of science. As the “social responsibility” (so called) of scientists has strengthened, a sense of individual responsibility to science seems to have weakened. Thus, what happens when careerism becomes a primary interest? A careful calculation of the potential costs and benefits of fraud may lead a sufficiently self-confident and ambitious researcher to advance his personal interest in this manner, once norms of objectivity have sufficiently broken down.

The recent case of a top researcher who had to withdraw papers due to fraud on the part of one of his graduate students illustrates a deeper problem yet. To call most of the coverage of this individual I have seen gentle would be an understatement. He seems to feel strongly his responsibility – but the feeling is curiously abstract. According to Science, “he denies the work was inadequately supervised,” when it would appear almost by definition that the student must not have been properly supervised. The senior researchers says his oversight was not predicated on the need to detect fraud. Why not? Was the journal reviewer who detected the problem really looking for fraud? Is the senior scientists allowed to present himself as a martyr to a system of research and publication from which he has so obviously greatly benefited because of a perception that it is not in his interest, or the interest of his peers, to look too carefully at the problems inherent in that system?

Some who do scrutinize the system point in the wrong direction, although a direction consistent with politicized science. The notion of using quality-assurance measures to reduce the chances of misconduct may be attractive in a world where (to speak of another famous case) researchers no longer seem to feel the need of keeping proper lab notebooks. But such measures would do little more than what is achieved in other professions by so-called “ethics codes,” which mix pious sentiments, requirements to create a paper trail, and opportunities for quasi-judicial litigiousness. For science, red tape is no substitute for inculcating and enforcing behavioral norms and expectations that discipline or habituate individual researchers to the requirements of objectivity.

In short, I would like you to consider the possibility that the problem of politicized science is not confined to a limited number of “politically correct” individuals and organizations, but is slowly and surely becoming systemic. It follows from and develops further some trends that are outside of the control of science, but most of all from a breakdown of the past norms of objectivity and disinterestedness. I agree with the analysis of John Ziman, who sees in the rise of what he calls “postacademic” science an undermining of these same norms. He is, I think, more sanguine about the outcome than I am. His response to the changes is conservative in the sense that he does not seem to think much can be done to buck the trends, so he wants to find ways of living with them.

My response is conservative in another sense. I think there is every reason to attempt to conserve the norms which have led to science’s success at understanding the natural world in the past, and I would put the burden for so doing on the education of scientists, as responsible individuals, to adhere to the norms of objectivity to the best of their abilities.

Just as other professions place distinctive moral obligations on their practitioners, so those who wish to enter the sciences must be habituated to the practice of those activities that conduce to objectivity and disinterestedness. Those special obligations in other professions at times lead to tensions between the profession and the wider society – lawyers are an obvious example. But those tensions, even when the result of individual character flaws, are to be expected, and should, in the case of science, be occasions for reminding the larger world of the important goods that the special obligations serve in gaining understanding of the natural world and the benefits therefrom.

In this, as in all cases, intelligent conservatism understands that new circumstances may require new ways of achieving old norms. When the milieu in which science is done includes, as often today, a high degree of specialization with a high degree of policy salience, an additional burden falls on scientists in satisfying the demands of what Ziman calls communalism, i.e., publication or dissemination of research findings. At the very least, work should be presented in such a way as to make the hypothesis in question, the methods used, and the results as transparent as possible to the non-specialist, even if still professional, community. Uncertainties and limitations need to be clearly and completely articulated, and alternative explanations not just mentioned, but explored. I take it that the editors of Nature have at least some of this in mind in their recent announcement that they will expect more broadly intelligible presentations.

Such a stricture does not mean that scientists must on all occasions present their work so that it is immediately accessible to the lay public. The default assumption on this popularization process presently seems to be – with good reason – that it will usually go badly from the point of view of accuracy and that there is nothing individual scientists can or need do about that. The contempt for media and public intelligence implicit in this position is not wholly unjustified, but the first half of this assumption will not change until the second half does. Granted there is a sacrifice of time better spent in other ways, but scientists still own their work after it has been published, and pride of ownership alone would seem to me to justify active efforts to see that the work is not misrepresented. I never saw, for example, a letter from the NASA ozone scientists to Time magazine, pointing out that their cover of a burning earth did not accurately reflect the NASA press conference that inspired it. (Perhaps, contrary to Rep. Brown, it did reflect that conference!) In any case, if scientists as a group “aren’t good at that sort of thing,” they should get good at it. Effective public communication is, in part at least, a learnable skill.

Similar arguments need to be considered as related to the institutional context for doing science today. If, because of specialization and politicization, peer review serves to support the orthodoxies of self-selected associations of scientists, it should not be regarded as a guarantor of a result it no longer achieves. Objectivity may be better served by heightening and publicizing dispute than by anonymous, behind the scenes evaluations, or by committee consensuses manufactured by activist staffs.

The funding of scientific research also raises questions. I have seen it suggested that relatively easy access to public funds did not encourage habits of parsimony and efficiency in scientific research. Be that as it may, it seems reasonable to think that the availability of large sums of money made it possible to ask questions whose answers would require such large sums. Whether these are the only interesting questions for science to ask today should be an open question. And at what level funds should come from the public sector should likewise be an open question, once it becomes clear that such funding enforces orthodoxies and policy prescriptions of its own. It seems to me we should be looking for the balance point at which public money provides the necessary supplement to, but does not drive out, private funding.

Of course, this is a delicate matter, for at least two reasons. First, many are concerned that with less public money, some research will just not get done. Perhaps so, but I don’t think we can generalize here. When public funding for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence was cut off, private funds were found to continue it. Not only that, but the end of public funding meant the weakening of certain SETI orthodoxies, such that now, for example, there are private groups developing hardware and software for coordinated amateur SETI listening posts, and for searching for signals in the optical spectrum.

SETI may have been lucky; perhaps in the end some research opportunities will be lost. That might encourage scientists to make yet more careful judgments about what is most important to do with limited resources – a tricky question, but not an unfamiliar or intrinsically bad one. Answers to it could just serve to enforce politically popular orthodoxies, but one technique of triage might be to make fewer overt promises about the ability of science to find solutions to particular policy problems of the day. We know we can come to understand viruses better; that may or may not mean a “cure” for AIDS.

In the second place, many are concerned, not unreasonably, that private funding will heighten the role of interest in research. That is supposedly why Rep. Brown seeks financial disclosure forms for scientists who testify before Congress. The fact that the implicit premise that public funds come without interest-based strings may well be false in many cases does not entirely answer this concern. Neither does saying that letting a thousand funding flowers bloom will increase the diversity of outlooks and ideas, if indeed those outlooks and ideas are understood merely to be the product of diverse interests. The difficulty seems to me to point to the conclusion that there is no entirely satisfactory substitute for the individual researcher’s effort to adhere to the norms of objectivity to the greatest degree possible, and for the community of researchers to enforce these norms rigorously. In a healthy scientific community, with clear standards for individual excellence, it would no more occur to a scientist or layman to criticize a researcher because his work was paid for by Texaco than it would to judge singers at the Met by the fact that their work had the same sponsorship.

In this matter, as in so many others, we need meaningful and tested standards of excellence, and individuals who passionately adhere to them. You want people as scientists who want to test themselves against the highest expectations. Instead, politicized science makes the attraction of science the opportunity to advance some pre-determined political good or otherwise self-interested behavior.

Perhaps this development explains what is otherwise a paradoxical situation for science education. For one or two generations, science seems to have failed to catch the interest of students, despite ever more sophisticated and, one would think, compelling ways of presenting the substance of scientific knowledge. What’s going on? In a society built so much on material interest as ours is, the moral challenge of becoming a scientist is being lost, the sense of testing one’s ability to live up to high and austere standards, of being disinterested and objective in a world where “self interest rightly understood” is the more usual standard – and doing all this in the name of questing for the truth about the world around us. That seems to me far headier stuff for youthful idealism than computer simulations or the opportunity to solve problems grown-ups tell you are important. Science today wears its heart on its sleeve, and talks too much about all the good it is going to do if only. … Have the Fathers of Salomon’s Houses lost the ability to justify themselves by works? Can they no longer promise their acolytes the opportunity personally to transcend a good that they are at the same time serving for others, and, in so transcending those they serve, becoming their secret rulers?


Q: I agree with the tenor of your remarks, especially concerning peer review. I would even go further and assert that peer review should serve only two purposes: 1) as a means to throw out what is obvious trash; and 2) as a help to the authors to improve their work. I think the use of peer review as a way to judge what is worthy or not worthy of publication should be discarded.

Also, I would like to comment that sometimes science advances in what we would call breakthroughs. The bigger the breakthrough, the more likely a peer reviewer will not recognize it – if it was easily recognizable, it would have been done long ago. In other words, truly important work is often innovative, and therefore sometimes doesn’t survive peer review. For example, the scientist who provided the first documentation for continental drift had to go to an obscure Canadian journal to get his work published.

Q: I think the politicization of science includes the practice of science, the politics of science reflected in the congressional process, and perhaps most importantly, the way in which the media picks up on certain aspects of scientific controversy in order to seek a political end.

Dr. Rubin: I think all three of those elements are important and interrelated. The way the media picks up scientific results affects the way those results are presented by scientists. The way scientists justify the research they are doing, and the way Congress treats an issue, interact at both ends of that. There is a common thread that runs through those distinctive areas in which you can find the politicization of science.

Q: In the practice of science if someone is trying to promote a particular view point, they are caught out by their colleagues, who show where the difficulties and the fallacies are. That would end the problem of the politicization of science, except that the media often goes ahead and reports a story which says that, for example, someone like Barry Commoner is reflecting the scientific consensus.

Dr. Rubin: I would like to see a more vigorous process of exposing fallacies. Whatever Commoner’s reputation among his peers, I don’t see scientists publicly taking him – or scientists like him – on in a way which would make either policymakers or press see what the real problem is. There are a few people out there in any given policy area who will come forward and try to make the case that “the emperor has no clothes.” But there are always a few and they are always the same people. If indeed there is wide recognition that some of these scientific emperors have no clothes, then that wider recognition should be brought forward to the public and to policymakers. Why isn’t it brought forward as vigorously as you or I might like to see it brought forward? I think it has to do with a collapsing sense of professional norms.

Q: By eliminating peer review, or at least it losing its importance, you’re putting a lot more emphasis on the journal editor to make the decisions as to what gets published, and therefore what has possible political implications.

Q: Can I make a comment on that? The journal editor is known, and if he’s making bad decisions, he can be thrown out. The peer reviewer is anonymous. It’s far better that the editor be the one to make the judgment. At least you know who the editor is, and you can argue with him or her. But how does one argue with an anonymous peer reviewer, or with a group of them?

Q: To the extent that fraudulent science is linkable to politicized science, I think it’s worth pointing out that bad science tends to have a rather short life, not necessarily in years, but in terms of the building-block process in which established science speaks to new science. I think I am less worried than I might otherwise be about politicized science, because I believe the process tends to be self-correcting. I think politicized science bears in it the seeds of its own destruction. It can only build so far on a fallacious background before it comes tumbling down.

Q: I’m not so sanguine about there being a self-correcting mechanism for a couple of reasons. When poor science – for lack of a better term – gets picked up by the press, then it is used by politicians to advance an agenda, and frequently it’s inculcated into policy long before the scientific community can label the findings as nonsense. By then, it is too late.

Q: I wouldn’t disagree with that – I think there is a notion that there was, once upon a time, a purer state, when science was receiving government support, but was uncorrupted. This, I think, is unrealistic. The minute scientists or researchers start taking government money, it becomes politicized, and the political process bears with it people’s agenda, current political practice, current political perspectives. I think they are inseparable. It’s the cost of doing business, in a sense.

Q: On the subject of funding – there is a general perception which you pointed out that funding can have an impact on the research selected, the research outcomes and the way it’s reported. Could you comment on this? It seems to me closely connected with politicization, and fundamental to scientific research.

Dr. Rubin: There are a couple of interesting illustrations of this.

First, take the research on solar impacts on climate. Look at the Executive Office Global Action Plan yearly reports. Early on, in these and in some National Academy of Science reports, there is interest in solar impacts on climate change. Over time there was less and less mention of it until, finally, it’s not mentioned at all. Are there reasons to believe there’s a solar impact on climate change? Yes, I think so. Is it at least worth studying? Certainly, it’s worth studying. But this wasn’t interesting to the established orthodox position on the global warming problem, so no money was allocated for its study.

Second, the case of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which was defunded after a number of years. What happened as a result? Private money came in and filled the gap, enough that major SETI research continues, privately funded. Something even more interesting than that happened though. Around the same time SETI was defunded, there was a proliferation of groups interested in SETI in new ways. For example, there’s one group researching the possibility that signals might not be microwave signals, but may be found in the visible spectrum. There’s another group helping amateurs – mostly ham radio operators – set up their own SETI listening posts. Their technical argument is that if they get a big enough network, they could do some good research.

Now that the government is no longer funding one particular way of doing things, other ways begin to look more legitimate.

Q: If someone in a powerful position on Capitol Hill is trying to be responsible about this, what does he or she do? Politics is a good thing when it means deliberating about the common good. I think, in that sense, political use of science is a good thing. Politicians should be listening to the scientists.

But there’s always a problem. Say, for instance, you are organizing a hearing. You call on witnesses who submit conflicting views or findings – then what do you do? Do you yourself try to sort it out? Do you put the scientists into a back room and say, OK, what do you guys agree on?

Are you objecting to scientists telling us whether they think we should be taking action on something?

Dr. Rubin: No. Scientists, as citizens of this country, have every right to come before a Congressional committee – or anyone else who will listen to them – and express their views as scientists and as citizens. A scientist as a scientist should be doing his utmost to give the Senate or the Congress of the United States the best information that is currently available. That includes both his best judgment about the research that he knows best, and as clear an explanation as he can give to an intelligent lay audience of the uncertainties involved. It should also include, as necessary, a confrontation with those who would disagree with him, generating as much light as possible and as little heat as possible.

Those conflicts should not be hidden. They should be stated and argued openly. I am definitely not in favor of the go-settle-this-in-a-back-room strategy.

I think the politicians asking the questions should not attempt to force the issue, demanding a yes or no answer. I think that’s plainly a mistake, and not an uncommon one.

Q: So there’s nothing wrong with scientists being political in the sense of making recommendations for the common good; what you really want is it to be certain that the legislators have competing points of view on a question?

Dr. Rubin: Yes, and I want the scientists to be clear about the presuppositions of the recommendations they are making – clear about when they’re making their judgment based on a scientific foundation of which they are firmly convinced, and when they are making a judgment based on their own policy predilections or their own vision of what decisions should be be made.

Q: The issue is whether the Senate or whomever is getting the best rendering of the scientific facts available.

Q: I know of hearings during which the scientists didn’t want to debate in front of the Senators, because they didn’t believe the Senators would understand. They went in a back room and decided what propositions they agreed on, and what they didn’t agree on.

Dr. Rubin: In my opinion, that is a big mistake.

Q: On the matter of public vs. private funding of research: Perhaps it would be good to return to private funding; however, no pocket in the private sector is deep enough to fund the superconducting supercollider or the space telescope. Nor, I doubt, will any pocket in the federal government be deep enough soon.

Q: For the purpose of sorting out conflicts, would a mechanism like the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) be useful?

Dr. Rubin: I think OTA did a lot of good work. Their best work involved a clear and accurate presentation of various points of view.

Q: I think the OTA – that kind of apparatus – tends to further centralize the sources of scientific opinions and facts given to policymakers and, therefore – in principle, at least – is not desirable.

Q: We all want to have policymakers make decisions based on sound science. Where does someone – the EPA Administrator, for example – go for good science advice? There is a lot of literature which comes to different conclusions. Science is sometimes pretty messy.

I seem to hear you say that there is suspicion about bringing together peer review panels for the purpose of assessing the science, because doing so somehow makes this panel part of someone’s agenda. How does the EPA Administrator decide, then, what is good science?

Dr. Rubin: If I may, let me turn that question around. Shouldn’t policy be made consistent with the messiness of the science, if indeed science is messy?

Q: That is, I think, a very important policy question.

I work with Congressman George Brown. One of the things that Mr. Brown wanted to ask in his recent report was “What level of proof do you want to insist on?” This is a policy question, because it depends on your preference for balancing economic costs vs. potential risks. Scientists can have opinions about that – but what does the EPA Administrator do? She must have some way to assess what that science is. What’s the alternative to a peer review panel?

Dr. Rubin: The earlier point about centralization of information is well taken. In the case of an EPA Administrator, it seems to me there must be some centralization of information. The responsible party cannot attempt to review the full record. That puts a special obligation on the part of those who are providing the Administrator with that information; they must make sure that it adequately reflects the messiness at hand. She then can make that policy decision, as you describe it, in the appropriate manner.

Q: So you believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with convening a science review panel to provide that assessment?

Dr. Rubin: Nothing inherently wrong, but it seems to me that the premium in such panels is generally put on reaching some sort of panel consensus. This push for consensus doesn’t always occur, however. In the case of the EPA’s PM 2.5 regulations, there was dissension in the panel. When the chairman tried to summarize the panel’s position, he had a page of charts, and another page with notes summarizing all the different positions that the panel took. I think that’s great. I think that should happen more often.

Q: So your objection to the science review panel is the fact that generally there’s a forced consensus-making process.

Dr. Rubin: Yes. That’s not unconnected with having a panel in the first place. But a set of expectations could be worked out that would allow panels to not act in a kind of group-think way. It might be a fight, but it probably could be done.

Q: Since you began with Bacon, I thought it might be legitimate to bring him up again. Bacon seems to have thought that all science, willy-nilly, would be popular science – which for him meant vulgar science, which is bad science – and that science would always be distorted because it existed in the public eye. Now, it seems to me that in modernity science has assumed even more of a public profile, and that some of the difficulties you allude to are just inevitable. So the question remains, how serious then is this for science? If it is serious problem for real science, what can be done about it?

You seem to call for a kind of Kantian education in one’s sense of duty. I don’t think that will cut it. Bacon seemed to have thought that the human desire for honor needs to be gratified, and so in Salomon’s house you have many internal honors accorded to scientists, including the self-honor of knowing that you’re a ruler. But I submit that unless scientists can convince themselves and others that science is worth pursuing because “it’s good to know,” – something positive and not a Kantian formal duty – then I think the jig’s up.

Dr. Rubin: I certainly did not intend to be Kantian. And I think there’s a Baconian defense of what I said. Bacon was quite interested in teaching his prospective scientists about the various idols. And it’s precisely that kind of education that Bacon provides which it seems to me an appropriate way of approaching the kind of austere discipline which makes science possible.

Q: The difficulty is that Baconian science – as Bacon didn’t hesitate to say – is ugly science in lots of ways. To correct those idols also meant to deny that the things that scientists pursued were worth knowing in their own right.

Bacon makes a double bargain. Science may not be automatically seen as wonderful by the public, but that is balanced by making science serve the public by affording comfort and technology and so forth. But unless there are enough scientists around who think that science is a beautiful thing to be engaged in, and who can persuade young potential scientists of the same thing, then there won’t be science. That seems to me to be the ultimate educational issue.

Dr. Rubin: I agree.

Q: In terms of messiness, is science any different than economics? For instance, if one is balancing risk vs. cost of a particular policy, the scientists tell you the risks, the economists tell you the costs. There are almost always disagreements in what the economists say. It is just as messy.

Q: Nonetheless, things do get done.

Q: Yes, things get done. But no one brings in an economist and says this is the consensus, and therefore this is correct. It should be the same way with science. In other words, there are different views among scientists, as well as among economists. This makes the work of the legislator difficult. It means he has to understand what they are saying, and not simply go with a recommendation, yes or no. They can’t simply repeat what they are told by experts.

Q: The process would work better if scientists were intelligible. Intelligibility is the necessary link to policymakers.

Dr. Rubin: Although, I must say, economists seem to have done just fine without being intelligible!

Q: The issue of intelligibility can be addressed from both sides. It’s not merely the scientists but the policymakers, the educated public who must now be able to evaluate what they are hearing. I don’t think that one necessarily needs to be a scientist to identify bad science. As educators we can create educated people sufficiently familiar with the methods and content to make reasonably intelligent evaluations, or at least to be able to respond skeptically to astronomers who try to speak about biology, and visa versa.

Q: There seems to be an undercurrent or unstated assumption that the decisions that we are discussing should be based on the best science alone. There are many other dimensions to be considered. Science has to be politicized, because technical decisions have implications for jobs, for national security, for national health, etc. I get concerned that we may concentrate too much on the scientific aspect of these decisions, which really and necessarily are political, albeit with strong technical components.

Q: Part of the politicization comes from the responsiveness of a democracy. When Senator so-and-so goes out and gets his expert, and Senator so-and-so from another region goes out and gets his expert, at least that prevents a rush to judgment. It may not be the solid basis of scientific endeavor, but one thing it does do is slow down the system. So I wonder whether or not, over the long term, interest group liberalism – politicization itself – may not be a partial solution to bad-science-based policy.

Dr. Rubin: Can I just link the last two comments? It seems to me true that the whole policy picture is a jigsaw puzzle. The problem I see in politicization of science is that one of those pieces is trying to look like a whole bunch of other pieces. Although it’s not the whole picture, it has to be there to have the whole picture. But it shouldn’t try to be any other part of the puzzle than the part it is. So if a scientist starts trying to do what a politician should be doing, that distorts that piece of the puzzle and it begins to play another role in the whole picture than the one it should.

Q: In the world of politics, information comes to you in digested form that doesn’t really smoke out the issues. Most legislators are reluctant to make judgments for themselves – they are skeptical of scientists, but are not about to replace them or decide on their own what they think of science.

It isn’t that science isn’t political. The problem is that the diversity of the scientific community is not really evident enough.

Q: I take a little bit more of a cynical approach having worked in many policy areas. I often have found that high-ranking bureaucrats and politicians have an agenda which they then ask scientists to backfill. A lot of damage has been done in this way.

Dr. Jastrow: Thank you, Dr. Rubin.

Partner & Fellow Blogs