The Closet Moderate: On the Politicization of Science

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On the Politicization of Science

Approximately 400 news cycles ago, President Obama revoked the previous Administration's ban on certain types of stem cell research. There was much rejoicing. So was this a triumph of cool intellect over fiery dogma? Has science been saved from the driveling idiots?

Probably not, since by my reckoning drivel is just as likely to reside in the mouths of PhD's as it is in your every day moran. The universality of narrowmindedness aside, there's just no bright line between science and politics.

Here's a specific, real-world example:
A program manager for Department of Homeland Security is tasked with solving the following "technical problem" given to him by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). CBP has too many false alarms from ground sensors placed in the slash, the 20 meter deforested strip along the US/Canada border. That program manager is given a budget based on subjective/political decisions about the priority and difficulty of solving this "problem". The program manager writes, reviews, and awards contracts to solve this problem.

Now do you want a manager who's tackles this as purely a technical problem who invests all of their budget on say an additional video sensor that CBP can look at to figure out if the "threat" is a deer, person, tank, etc? Right now at DHS those program managers are nearly all technical folks with varying levels of interest outside their field of expertise. Yet the "problems" they work on have obvious social and political implications. Would you want to live near one of these cameras? What if your driveway was in their field of view? Or would you want DHS to have people and tools that will help them consider broader social implications of their projects and hopefully avoid building gadgets that will meet immediate, hostile resistance from the public?

Science has a great deal to tell decision-makers about what may or may not happen should they choose a particular course of action. But science can never tell us what we should do, even if scientists do. Mr. Obama's stem cell and science integrity memos recognized this distinction. Mr. Obama stated,

But in recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.

This was not a decision to pursue science where ever it may lead. It's one particular ethical and moral standing winning in political combat. This Administration will provide no more free rein to scientists trying to create policy than the last. It may allow scientists to express their political agendas more freely. And it will certainly continue making politically motivated, and value-driven choices about what actions to take.

A truly novel approach to science policy would be to recognize the value choices inherent in any human endeavor. Perhaps by creating more and more positions where technical and subjective evidence are explicitly discussed as separate but entangled entities and decisions are made with antecedents in both camps. Where science and policy professionals use tools and frameworks that make value choices more transparent. And where decisions about what collaborations, research goals, or outcome metrics should be used benefit from greater consideration within the Academe and without.


Silent Cal said...

I've noticed a few of the triumphal "the science is back" news articles lately, too. It seems like when the Roman Empire (to use every hater's favorite America analogue) switched back and forth between Christian and pagan emperors (I shan't say which represents which here).

It's part of the problem, especially prevalent in the blogosphere, of the politicization of everything. Hells bells, nowadays when you comment on the weather you get a lecture on global warming, and if you remark upon the fortunes of the local baseball nine, you're hit with polemics on steroids and antitrust law. And you wonder why I want the government to keep out of things -- the freedom to make banal small talk is fast disappearing!

Harold Lasswell said...

I'm assuming the Yankees are the pagans?

Harold Lasswell said...

Comedy Central has a take on this too.