Science and Politics: Accepting a Dysfunctional Union

By Pielke, Roger, Jr. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Science and Politics: Accepting a Dysfunctional Union


Pielke, Roger, Jr., Harvard International Review


Dan Sarewitz, professor of science and society at Arizona State University, argues that we should fully expect politicians to politicize scientific information because "that is their job...and this--like the second law of thermodynamics--is not something to be regretted, but something to be lived with." Sarewitz's assertion flies in the face of many recent discussions on science and politics, focusing predominantly on the actions of President George W.Bush, which are characterized in ample portions by both blame and regret.

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The Bush administration has courted controversy in many areas of policy making, and science is no exception. While complaints about the heavy-handed tactics and questionable decisions of the Bush administration are both justified and easy to offer, such complaints can do little to address the challenges of science in policy and politics, especially now that President Bush enters the final months of his presidency.

The most simplistic prescription that has been offered to the issues of the politicization of science is simply to elect another president, a solution that plays well in large segments of the scientific community, where many never shared President Bush's politics anyway. For instance, in 2004 a group called Scientists and Engineers for Change sought to use the issue of science politicization to help elect John Kerry to the presidency. At times a rallying cry to end the Republican "war on science" can be heard in the current presidential campaign.

More sophisticated efforts to address the challenges of science and politics look beyond the efforts to gain partisan advantage and instead focus on practical strategies for living with the reality that science and politics will always be intermixed in the practice of governance. If Sarewitz is correct--and many decades of study on the role of science in decision-making suggest that he is--then efforts. to keep science and politics separate are not only doomed to fail, but they are likely to create conditions enhancing the pathological politicization of science.

Politics and Science Have Always Mixed

Accepting that science and politics are inextricably intertwined begins with a clear-eyed view of history. Consider just a very few examples of political issues that involved science during the past six presidential administrations. President Richard Nixon had the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) move the timing of the launch of Apollo 17 in order to better serve his 1972 reelection campaign, against the wishes of NASA scientists and engineers. During President Ford's administration the Los Angeles Times alleged that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had falsified data in support of its regulatory position on sulfur oxides. A subsequent investigation by the US Congress found serious issues with EPA's peer review and that some of its epidemiological research provided an unsuitable basis for regulation.

President Jimmy Carter went against the wishes of his scientific advisors when he committed the United States to drawing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2000. President Carter explained that he accepted his advisors technical conclusions that the goal would be impossible, but that he had put forward the proposal for political reasons. President Ronald Reagan, prior to being elected, questioned the science of evolution, calling it a theory that was being increasingly challenged by scientists. He suggested that if evolution was to be taught in schools, "then I think that also the biblical theory of creation, which is not a theory but the biblical story of creation, should also be taught." The administration of President George H.W. Bush proposed redefining "wetlands" in such as way so as to exclude millions of acres of land from federal protection and open them up for development. The proposal was eventually withdrawn for lack of a scientific basis. …

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