Forget Politicizing Science. Let's Democratize Science! Science Advising in Government Is Unavoidably Political, but We Must Make a Concerted Effort to Ensure That It Is Democratic

By Guston, David H. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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Forget Politicizing Science. Let's Democratize Science! Science Advising in Government Is Unavoidably Political, but We Must Make a Concerted Effort to Ensure That It Is Democratic


Guston, David H., Issues in Science and Technology


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, transparency, and accountability. It means considering the societal outcomes of research at least as attentively as the scientific and technological outputs. It means insisting that in addition to being rigorous, science be popular, relevant, and participatory.

These conceptions of democratization are neither new nor, when applied to science, idiosyncratic. They have appeared in discussions about science at critical historical junctures. For example, the Allison Commission, a congressional inquiry into the management of federal science in the 1880s, established the principle that even the emerging "pure science" would, when publicly financed, be subject to norms of transparency and accountability, despite John Wesley Powell's protestations. After World War II, the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) hinged on establishing a politically accountable governing structure. These concerns exist at the heart of arguments made by theorists such as Columbia University philosopher Philip Kitcher, who describes the accessible and participatory ideal of "well-ordered science" in his Science, Truth, and Democracy. They likewise exist in many current science agencies and programs, but there they often fly under the radar of higher-profile issues or have been institutionalized in ways that undermine their intent.

They do not exist, however, as an agenda for democratizing science. Below, I attempt to construct such an agenda: a slightly elaborated itemization of ways to democratize both policy for science and science in policy.

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Forget Politicizing Science. Let's Democratize Science! Science Advising in Government Is Unavoidably Political, but We Must Make a Concerted Effort to Ensure That It Is Democratic
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