Science's Uncertain Authority in Policy

By Marburger, John | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Science's Uncertain Authority in Policy


Marburger, John, Issues in Science and Technology


Scientists view science as the ultimate authority on the laws of the universe, but that authority has no special standing when it comes to the laws of nations. The rigors of the scientific method may be humanity's most reliable approach to attaining rational and objective "truth," but the world's leaders very often follow other routes to policy conclusions. Society's decisionmakers acknowledge the power of science and invoke its support for their decisions, but they differ greatly from scientists in the way they understand and use science. My years as White House science advisor made me aware that science has no firm authority in government and public policy. Scientists might wish that it were otherwise, but if they want to play an effective role in policymaking, they need to understand the political process as it is. A few examples will illustrate my point.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In November 2001, following what were then regarded as incidents of terrorism involving mailed anthrax, Homeland Security Advisor Tom Ridge called me seeking urgent advice on what to do with a very large quantity of anthrax-laden U.S. mail. Working with my staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, we formed an interagency task group to evaluate and recommend methods to neutralize the spores. The answer we were seeking could not be found in the literature, so we commissioned some research and delivered what was truly "applicable science on demand." We were able to give the U.S. Postal Service precise instructions on how to employ electron-beam irradiation with equipment normally used for food sterilization. Our directions addressed all aspects of the procedure, including the setting for radiation intensity. The Postal Service officials were delighted, and they enthusiastically went to work destroying anthrax--perhaps too enthusiastically. They reported back to us that some of the first batches of mail burst into flame.

We discovered that our guidance, which I would describe as a narrow form of policy advice, was accepted as to method, but not as to degree. Someone surmised that if five on the intensity dial were good, ten would be better. That agent substituted his or her judgment for a well-defined policy recommendation based on careful science and unambiguous data. Much, of course, was at stake. The Postal Service was responsible for delivering mail that would not be lethal. Better to be safe than sorry. When the intensity was throttled back to our recommended level, the treatment worked just fine. You may smile at this minor episode, but it is a relatively benign example of a potentially disastrous behavior. A serious consequence of ignoring expert technical advice occurred in January 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle launch rocket failed, killing seven astronauts. The best brief account I know of this tragedy is contained in Edward Tufte's 1997 Visual Explanations, which includes a detailed analysis of the manner in which the advice was given. "One day before the flight, the predicted temperature for the launch was 26[degrees] to 29[degrees] [F]. Concerned that the [O- rings] would not seal at such a cold temperature, the engineers who designed the rocket opposed launching Challenger the next day." Their evidence was faxed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where "a high-level NASA official responded that he was 'appalled' by the recommendation not to launch and indicated that the rocket-maker, Morton Thiokol, should reconsider ... Other NASA officials pointed out serious weaknesses in the [engineers'] charts. Reassessing the situation after these skeptical responses, the Thiokol managers changed their minds and decided that they now favored launching the next day. They said the evidence presented by the engineers was inconclusive."

Even more was at stake when secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports to the White House starting in April 2001 advanced the opinion of an analyst--by reasonable standards a well-qualified analyst--that certain aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were likely for use in a nuclear weapons program. …

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