Since the publication last year by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) of a report alleging that the Bush administration has been inappropriately manipulating scientific reports and advisory committees, science policy has become an issue with surprisingly long political legs. The administration dismissed Waxman's report as a partisan distortion and a politicization of science in its own right. But this charge became somewhat harder to sustain with the publication of a like-minded report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and a letter, signed by a left-leaning but still bipartisan group of scientists, again alleging that the administration has inappropriately played politics with the findings of government scientists and with appointments to federal scientific advisory panels.
John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, eventually responded with his own defensively toned report. The political right also took aim with a critique of leftist science in Politicizing Science, published by the conservative Hoover Institution. Without close examination of each allegation, it is hard to judge whether one side is engaging in the more significant distortion or whether both sides are merely viewing business as usual through a lens fractured along partisan lines.
Regardless, such allegations that science has been politicized are unproductive. I also suspect them of being somewhat insincere, in the same way that Louis, the Vichy Prefect of Police in Casablanca, was "shocked, shocked" to find gambling in the back room at Rick's, even as he collected his own winnings. From the $120 billion for scientific R & D that the government provides, to the petty power plays that plague departmental governance, science is deeply political. Asking whether science is politicized distracts us from asking. "Who benefits and loses from which forms of politicization?" and "What are the appropriate institutional channels for political discourse, influence, and action in science?" Arguing over whether science is politicized neglects the more critical question: "Is science democratized?"
Democratizing science does not mean settling questions about Nature by plebiscite, any more than democratizing politics means setting the prime rate by referendum. What democratization does mean, in science as elsewhere, is creating institutions and practices that fully incorporate principles of accessibility, …