Social Change and Science Policy

By Sarewitz, Daniel | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Social Change and Science Policy


Sarewitz, Daniel, Issues in Science and Technology


Closer links among science, social goals, and democratic processes are essential to the future health of science and society.

One can almost hear the collective. sigh of relief coming from the federally funded science community. Only a year ago, analysts were forecasting 20 to 30 percent cuts in funding for nondefense R&D as part of the congressional plan to balance the federal budget by the year 2002. But this year's budget scenario suggests that a 10 percent reduction over the next five years may be closer to the mark, as continued economic growth enhances the federal revenue picture. Even better news may come from bipartisan political support for R&D in Congress. Senator Phil Gramm (RTex.) has introduced a bill calling for a doubling of federal funds for "basic science and medical research" over the next decade, and his ideological antithesis, Rep. George E. Brown, Jr., (D-Calif.) has developed a budget-balancing plan that provides 5 percent annual increases for R&D. Although few would deny that the post-World War II era of rapidly rising federal R&D expenditures has come to an end, current trends seem to imply that the worst fears of science-watchers were vastly overstated. As recently reported in Science: "After two years of uncertainty, the White House and Congress seem to be moving toward stable funding for science and technology."

Even in the face of such relatively good news, the R&D enterprise is not well served by complacency. Continued exponential growth of federal entitlement programs, if left unchecked, will threaten the budgetary picture for R&D and other discretionary programs for years to come. But such fiscal considerations are only one element of a national context for science and technology that has changed radically in the 1990s and will likely continue to change well into the next century. Successful response to this evolving context may require a fundamental rethinking of federal R&D policy. Failure to respond could lead to a devastating loss of public support for research.

What are the essential components of the new context for federally funded S&T? Here I focus on three emerging social trends whose potential implications are neither sufficiently acknowledged nor adequately understood.

Interest-group politics. From AIDS activists to environmentalists, from antiabortion advocates to animal rights organizations, interest groups composed largely of nonscientists increasingly seek to influence the federal research agenda. This trend is not surprising: As science and technology have become increasingly integral to the fabric of daily life, it is natural to expect that the populace will seek a correspondingly stronger voice in setting R&D policies.

Scientists, of course, may view such activism as a threat to the integrity and vitality of science. But the standard argument that only scientists are qualified to determine appropriate priorities and directions for research is intrinsically self-serving and thus politically unconvincing. Moreover, there is ample evidence that when scientists work cooperatively with knowledgeable activists from outside the research community, science as well as society can benefit. Increased sensitivity about the ethics of animal experimentation, reduced gender bias in clinical trials for non-sex-specific diseases, changing protocols for clinical trials involving AIDS sufferers, and evolving priorities in environmental and biomedical research all reflect the input of groups that were motivated by societal, rather than scientific, interests. Science has changed from this input but it has not suffered. More of such change is inevitable, as exemplified by the success of recent lawsuits brought against the National Academy of Sciences by outside groups seeking to provide input into academy studies.

Societal alienation. In an affluent nation such as the United States, the promise of continual societal progress fueled by more scientific and technological progress will become harder to fulfill, simply because the basic human needs of most people have been met, and the idea of progress increasingly derives from aspirations and satisfactions that are intangible, subjective, and culturally defined. …

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