Monday, January 10, 2005

Science and Politics

Roger Pielke Jr. is the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado. In today's Washington Post he offers these thoughts on the subject of the politicization of science advisory panels.

Let's consider a few excerpts:

The Bush administration has been hammered over the past few years by accusations that it is “politicizing science,” especially through the practice of stacking advisory panels with political partisans. For instance, in 2002 a professor at the University of New Mexico claimed that an invitation to join the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse was rescinded when he failed to express to an agency official his support for President Bush.

An accumulation of such experiences has led to a number of investigations and reports on the process for selecting members of federal science advisory panels. These panels provide scientific input to the government on issues ranging from environmental standards to regulation of prescription drugs. But the apparent solution to this problem -- to cleanly separate science from politics -- is impossible, and the commonly prescribed cure for current abuses is worse than the disease.

It might be true that it is impossible for an individual to completely separate his political views from his interpretation of scientific evidence, but that isn't really the issue here. There is such a thing as the scientific community, and when that community comes to a clear consensus on important issues the people advising the president should not be drawn solely from the minority side.

The problem isn't simply that Bush has been stocking his panels with political conservatives. It is that he is doing so for the specific purpose of hearing only what he wants to hear. The example Pielke provides is a good illustration of this. Another example is global warming. The clear consensus among scientists is that global warming is real and that human actions are partly to blame for it. Bush finds this message unappealing. So he stacks his panels with people who will tell him that actually global warming is a lot of nonsense. He is using his panels to provide scientific cover for political actions he wishes to take, and not to provide unbiased advice regarding scientific issues.

A November report of the nation's leading nongovernmental science advisory body -- the National Research Council (NRC) -- recommended that presidential nominees to science and technology advisory panels not be asked about their political and policy perspectives. The NRC describes the political and policy views of prospective panelists as “immaterial information” because such perspectives “do not necessarily predict their position on particular policies.” This “don't ask, don't tell” approach has been endorsed by Democratic decision makers, as well as by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) commented, “Once you begin letting politics get in the way of choosing scientists to offer expert advice, you corrupt the very process designed to get you good advice.”

But in fact politics is unavoidable in the empaneling process. The real question is whether we want to openly confront this reality or allow it to play out in the proverbial backrooms of political decision making.

Pielke is enamored of the idea that science and politics are hopelessly intertwined, but he never gets around to defending it. The fact is that scientists of different political persuasions routinely manage to come to an agreement about what the facts are about nature. The purpose of science adivsory panels is not to make policy, but to provide the administration with the information it needs to decide on what national policy ought to be. Pielke seems to think that the only options in that regard are left-wing fire-breathers or right-wing fire-breathers.

Again, I agree that politics and science can not be completely separated, but it is possible to do a far better job than the Bush administaration has done.

As for asking nominees about their political views, I'm not sure what Pielke has in mind. Take the advisory panel on drug abuse he mentioned earlier. What sorts of political questions should such a nominee be asked? What does “openly confronting” this reality entail?

In nearly every other area of politics, advice is proffered with political and policy perspectives at the fore: the Supreme Court, congressional hearing witness lists, the Sept. 11 commission, to name just a few. In no other area where advice is given to the government is it even plausibly considered that politics can or should be ignored. And while science is the practice of developing systematic knowledge, scientists are both human beings and citizens, with values and views, which they often express in public forums.

This is very silly. Pielke sounds like one of those post-modern critics of science who argue that science is just another myth, with no greater claim to truth than any other route to knowledge. His opening sentence says very clearly that providing science advice is just another area of politics. It is one thing to say that a person's political views influence the way he considers evidence. It is quite another to suggest that the way one arrives at an opinion about, say, abortion or tax policy, is the same as the way one arrives at an opinion on the reality of global warming. The former two examples have a lot to do with one's opinions on morality and justice. There is no “fact of the matter” when the question is the morality of abortion or the fairness of the progressive income tax. There is a fact of the matter when the question is global warming, and there is some hope of arriving at a definite answer by accumulating enough evidence.

Yes, I agree, scientists have values and views. But when a clear consensus emerges in the scientific community on some issue, you can't simply brush this aside as a political opinion.

The column continues in this vein, with Pielke refusing to address the real issue: That Bush is nominating people for these panels based on their political qualifications, and not on their scientific achievments. He also never tells us what should be done to address this problem. The closest he comes in his closing paragraph:

More important than the composition of scientific advisory panels is the charge that they are given and the processes they employ to provide useful information to decision makers. The current debate over these panels reinforces the old myth that we can somehow cleanly separate science from politics and then ensure that the science is somehow untainted by the “impurities” of the rest of society. Yet paradoxically, we also want science to be relevant to policy. A better approach would be to focus our attention on developing transparent, accountable and effective processes to manage politics in science -- not to pretend that it doesn't exist.

The opening of this paragraph is pretty good. It is pretty clear that Bush is stacking his panels with people who will allow their political convictions to dictate their scientific advice. Such people are not employing good processes to provide useful information to decision makers.

But I have no idea what he means by “managing politics in science.” For that matter, he never actually takes a stand on the merits of the criticisms levelled against the Bush administration in this regard.