Science Policy in Its Social Context

By Sarewitz, Daniel; Foladori, Guillermo et al. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Science Policy in Its Social Context


Sarewitz, Daniel, Foladori, Guillermo, Invernizzi, Noela, Garfinkel, Michele S., Philosophy Today


Public support of science is justified by three primary instrumental rationales: scientific advance is necessary to create new wealth; scientific advance is necessary to solve particular societal problems; and scientific advance provides the information necessary for making effective decisions. Significant and persistent disparities between promise and performance accompany each of these rationales.

Our argument is that these disparities in part reflect science policy decisions made without adequate consideration of broader social contexts. To explain this point, we present an illustrative example for each rationale. We then discuss some approaches to more effective contextualization of science policy decisions. Such approaches could improve the capacity of science policy to achieve desired social outcomes, and reduce the potential for/and magnitude of negative outcomes. Failing this, they could at least create more realistic expectations and understandings of the roles, and limits, of science in society.

What Science Policy Is

Science policy is the decision process through which individuals and institutions allocate and organize the intellectual and fiscal resources that enable the conduct of scientific research. The proximate consequence of science policy in the U.S. federal government is the $118 billion that was spent in 2003 on the publicly funded research and development (R&D) enterprise (AAAS, 2004). On a global basis, government science policy decisions are responsible for the allocation of perhaps three times this amount (OECD, 2003). Through these expenditures, science policy decisions are a powerful catalyst for social and economic change.

Science policy in the United States federal government is carried out at many levels and in many organizations, ranging from the Office of Management and Budget in the White House, to managers of individual programs in federal agencies, to members of Congress who sit on relevant committees. Participants in the policy process include not just elected officials and bureaucrats, but scientists and a broad range of citizen stakeholders. There is, therefore, no unified science policy process, but it is conceptually useful to think about a science policy as the aggregate of the decisions that are made in these many policy venues.

Public funding for science is justified primarily on the basis of anticipated and specified societal benefits. The foundational case, and America's most important science policy document, is Vannevar Bush's Science-the Endless Frontier (1945), which stated, for example, that "advances in science will also bring higher standards of living, will lead to the prevention or cure of diseases, will promote conservation of our limited national resources, and will assure means of defense against aggression" (9).

Bush's compelling rhetoric helped set the stage in subsequent decades for the avalanche of promises made on behalf of public science by a variety of government agencies and science advocacy groups. Promotion of "basic" research focuses on expanding the reservoir of knowledge as a basis for solving a broad range of problems. "Directed" basic and applied research are justified for their potential to solve particular problems. But in all cases, it is the promise of concrete social benefits that rationalizes the demand for public support of science, and motivates science policy making. For example, a May 2004 advertisement in the Washington Post advocating more federal support for undirected, basic research nonetheless connects such research to specific, beneficial applications: "Research in Basic Science Brings Innovations that Improve our Lives ... Like Solar Energy" (University Research Association, Inc., 2004). The unstated assumption in such assertions is that the societal benefits of science are inherent in the science itself. Indeed, the idea that social benefit resides in science is the foundation of modern science policy dogma. …

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