Saturday, November 20, 2004

NAS: Don't Politicize Science

The nation is in need of exceptionally able scientists...

So ends the most recent report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).  The beginning is quoted here:
The security, economic well-being, and safety and health of the United States depend on the strength and vitality of the nation s science and technology (S&T) enterprise. Almost every aspect of modern public policy is touched by S&T, including those involving national security, economic development, health care, the environment, education, energy, and natural resources. The US research enterprise is the largest in the world and leads in innovation in many fields. For these reasons, it is critical to attract scientists and engineers into the highest levels of public service, either as political appointees in top leadership positions or as members of the many advisory committees providing scientific and technical advice to executive agencies.
The entire report can be read online, at the National Academies Press site (link above); a 12-page downloadable PDF summary is available as well.  Or, if you want, you can pay forty-five dollars for a real book.  Or, you can just read this blog post and trust me to convey to you the issues that are most important for you to know.

No, don't do that.  I did not read the report.  Reading an entire book online is not my idea of a fun Friday night.  Rather, I read the summary, and an article posted on www.the-scientist.com.  I selected those parts that suit my political inclinations. 

The NAS wrote a similar report in 2000.  Why the new one?  rationale for the new report is here:
Sufficient changes have occurred since the National Academies 2000 report on presidential appointments including the 2001 terrorist attacks, the anthrax deaths, the reorganization of homeland security activities in the federal government, new developments in S&T, and concerns about the politicization of S&T decision making and advice to warrant this new edition.
Note the part about "concerns about the politicization of S&T decision making and advice."  The report was written by a group of scientists.  Some can be identified as potentially partisan, but both of the major political parties were represented.  The report seems to have been written is a style that is apolitical, for the most part, so the inclusion of that phrase is significant.  Indeed, the criticism of the current Administration's science policy has been frequent, compelling, and even shrill at times.  They don't mention all of that, except for this brief allusion. 

Personally, I like the NAS report.  I would have liked to have written it.  It would have been an easy writing assignment: simply examine everything President Bush has done with science policy, and recommend the opposite.  For example, look at their fifth recommendation:
5. When a federal advisory committee requires scientific or technical proficiency, persons nominated to provide that expertise should be selected on the basis of their scientific and technical knowledge and credentials and their professional and personal integrity. It is inappropriate to ask them to provide nonrelevant information, such as voting record, political-party affiliation, or position on particular policies.
It was this point that was harped upon by the authors at www.the-scientist.com.  In the formal summary of the report, the authors acknowledge that S&T appointees will have opinions, and that these opinions could be strongly-held opinions.  They state explicitly that such opinions should not disqualify members.  They seem to have faith that good scientists can handle the issue of bias, so long as the biases are discussed openly:

Finally, most people are likely to form opinions on S&T issues with which they are experienced and familiar. For that reason, excluding S&T experts from serving on advisory committees solely on the grounds that their opinions are known is inappropriate and could leave the federal advisory committee system devoid of qualified candidates. The government would be better served by a policy in which the best scientists, engineers, and health professionals are selected because of their expertise with their opinions disclosed to staff and other committee members in closed session than by a policy that excludes them because of their presumed opinions on S&T issues.

Disclosing perspectives, relevant experiences, and possible biases serves two important purposes: it provides a context in which committees can assess and consider the views of individual committee members, and it provides an opportunity to balance strong opinions or perspectives through the appointment of additional committee members. The National Academies uses such a policy: people asked to serve on committees are obliged to reveal any possible sources of bias that they have so that others on the committee can discount or ignore their advice on a given subject.

Of course, such a practice necessitates something that certain politicians are loathe to do: relinquish control.  Outspoken persons are liable to say anything.  The scientists appointed to any position of national prominence all will be persons whose reputations are established already.  Therefore, they would not have to parse their commentary as carefully as a politician would like.  But in the experience of the NAS, the benefits of such open discussion outweigh the risks. 

The report summary is full of specific details, and is worth reading if you are curious about the inner workings of the government.  If not, just read the conclusion:

The nation is in need of exceptionally able scientists, engineers, and health professionals to serve in executive positions in the federal government and on federal advisory committees. Such persons, when serving as presidential appointees, make key programmatic and policy decisions that will affect our lives and those of our children. Similarly, skilled scientists and engineers are needed for advisory committees to provide advice on the myriad issues with complex technologic dimensions that confront government decision makers. Our nation has long been served by its ability to draw qualified S&T candidates to government service because of the opportunities for intellectually challenging work that affects the world in which we live and that encourages and protects the scientific process. We must continue to enlist the best candidates for these important positions and ensure that the obstacles to their service are minimized.

Scientists tend to be level-headed empiricists, and as such, they do not use words such as "need" and "must" lightly.  If they say we need something, and must do something, you can be sure they are referring to real imperatives. 

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