Playing Politics with Science: Balancing Scientific Independence and Government Oversight

Playing Politics with Science: Balancing Scientific Independence and Government Oversight

Playing Politics with Science: Balancing Scientific Independence and Government Oversight

Playing Politics with Science: Balancing Scientific Independence and Government Oversight


In the last decade, science in the United States has become increasingly politicized, as government officials have been accused of manipulating, distorting, subverting, and censoring science for ideological purposes. Political gamesmanship has played a major role in many different areas of science, including the debate over global climate change, embryonic stem cell research, government funding of research, the FDA's approval process, military intelligence related to Iraq, research with human subjects, and the teaching of evolution in public schools.

In Playing Politics with Science, David B. Resnik explores the philosophical, political, and ethical issues related to the politicalization of science and develops a conceptual framework for thinking about government restrictions on scientific practice. Resnik argues that the public has a right and a duty to oversee scientific research to protect important social values and hold scientists accountable for their actions, but that inappropriate government control over science can erode the integrity and trustworthiness of research, hamper scientific creativity and innovation, undermine the fairness and effectiveness of government and policies informed by science, discourage talented researchers from working for the government, and violate the freedom of scientists.

Resnik also makes policy recommendations for protecting science from politicalization, and maintains that scientific autonomy and government control must be properly balanced so that restrictions on science can benefit society without undermining scientific research, education, and expert advice.


Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of
free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the
manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the
unknown. Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan
for government support of science.

—Vannevar Bush

Science and the Government

It has been over sixty years since Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, prepared his report Science: the Endless Frontier, a document that shaped U.S. science policy in the second half of the 20th century and continues to hold influence today (Guston 2000). in this report, Bush outlined a vision for a partnership between scientists and the state: the government would fund research in the physical, biomedical, and social sciences and provide scientists with access to resources and a labor force. in return, scientists would produce knowledge and train the next generation of researchers. the fruits of this partnership would be national security, economic prosperity, and health and wellbeing. Scientists receiving funding from the government would have control over decisions concerning their methods, theories, analyses, and publications, but they would still be held financially, legally, and ethically accountable to the public. Although the government would share in the decisions concerning funding priorities, freedom of inquiry would be preserved (Bush 1945). the government would have broad oversight over scientific research, but scientists would still have considerable freedom to make decisions within their own sphere of influence. Scientists would have significant independence and autonomy.

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