The emergence of the United States coincided with the development of modern science (which we will define later once we’ve read the Shapin and Shaffer book); the development of higher education (as seen in the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890), especially the land-grant university , made explicit the connection between academic sciences and the political, economic, and social health of the modern nation-state. But while science has always been a part of political processes in the United States, the idea of science-based policy (or evidence-based policy) started with Hobbes many centuries ago (and yet another reason why we are reading Shapin and Schaffer). But because of the growth of the social sciences as well as the presence of science and technology in nearly all aspects of everyday life, science is an inextricable part of contemporary politics.
At one level, science is used in public policy as evidence to support a particular political position (see chapter one of Prewitt et.al 2012). In general, there are three factors that shape public policy: political considerations; value preferences; scientific knowledge. As stated in this report, we have a common understanding that ‘objective’ science is disinterested in politics, while ‘subjective’ politics have positions based on their interest. As a result, to enact better policy, what we really need is a way to bridge the communities of science and politics (2 communities metaphor):
Scientists and policy makers are separated by their languages, values, norms, reward systems, and social and professional affiliations. The primary goal of scientists is the systematic search for a reliable and accurate understanding of the world; the primary goal of policy makers is a practical response to a particular public policy issue. (Prewitt et.al. 2012:42). The interaction between science and policy can then be understood as translation or brokering.
But I would like to suggest that science is not purely objective. In fact, I’ve selected to have you read Prewitt et.al. 2012 for another reason (other than the fact that it’s free). It’s one of many publications from the National Academy of Sciences, a private, non-profit organization charged with providing advice to the country on issues of science and technology. Members are elected by natural and social scientists in particular fields, and it publishes one of the premier journals in the world (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Anthropologists and other social scientists hold that any human organization is characterized by politics with a small P (actions that people take to improve their own status or position, inherently tied to the distribution of power and particularities of the group). We will read more about how the politics of science makes problematic the position that ‘objective’ science is disinterested. One way to understand this kind of politics is to examine institutional arrangements – how structures relate to each other, structures in this sense being “groups with letterheads” (agencies, departments, NGO’s, etc.).
Prewitt et.al. (2012:38) map out the different ways in which science is used:
- Instrumental uses occur when research knowledge is directly applied to decision making to address particular problems.
- Conceptual uses occur when research influences or informs how policy makers and practitioners think about issues, problems, or potential solutions.
- Tactical uses involve strategic and symbolic actions, such as calling on research evidence to support or challenge a specific idea or program, such as a legislative proposal or a reform effort.
- Imposed uses (which is perhaps a variant on instrumental uses) describe mandates to apply research knowledge, such as a requirement that government budgeting be based on whether agencies have adopted programs backed by evidence.
Using science in public policy, whether natural sciences or social sciences, is not a straight-forward application of the results of a particular study to an issues. Gormley 2011 (as noted in Prewitt et.al. 2012:40) concludes that difficulties arise because:
- scientific research is one of many inputs into the policy process
- scientific knowledge accumulates through multiple studies, some of which reach different conclusions
- the applicability of a given study to a particular policy choice is a matter of judgment
- scientific research is translated, condensed, repackaged, and reinterpreted before it is used.
- the use of scientific information by public officials, when it is occurs, is more likely to involve justification than persuasion
Lastly, scientists themselves are political people; they have values, positions, and votes. STS looks at the social and cultural dimensions of scientific organizations precisely to better understand how the scientific enterprise itself has a myriad of power configurations and cultural values that can shape both individuals and scientific communities.
Environmental scientists are one such group of highly visible scientists that are deeply embedded in public policy. In this course, we will focus on a number of issues in environmental studies such as climate change.
One important legal principle that is used (but highly debated) in environmental public policy is the precautionary principle. Kriebel et.al. 2001 defines this as “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically” (2001:871). As a legal principle, what it means is that the burden of proof has shifted from a group of people or individual proving that a particular action has resulted in environmental harm, to one where the people initiating a particular action have to prove that their action does not cause any harm. “The absence of evidence of harm is not the same thing as evidence of the absence of harm” (Kriebel et.al. 2001:873)
With an increasing complexity of science and technology, greater understanding of the interdependence of various factors in creating problems, and the increased potential for catastrophic outcomes, we now have a political context where both scientists and policy makers are seen as unable to identify and correct potential problems. But the precautionary principle is not welcomed by all with open arms. There are a number of critiques to adopting the precautionary principle as a guiding legal concept. First, some argue that current environmental regulations are already precautionary – where there are problems, regulations can be fixed. Second, the precautionary principle is not scientific – it is an ideological principle, not one inherent to the scientific process. Third, the precautionary principle stifles innovation in that the burden of proof for those introducing a new innovation or technology is too high.
[As an aside: I’ve found that students in the past were unclear about type I vs. type II vs. type III error. This comes from statistics. A type I error (false positive, rejecting the null hypothesis when it is true) is wrongly concluding an association when there isn’t one. A type II error (false negative, accepting the null hypothesis when it is false) is failing to detect something that actually does exist. A type III error (wrong question, rejecting the null hypothesis for the wrong reason) is providing an accurate answer to the wrong problem. ]
Summary of the relationship between science and policy highlighted by the precautionary principle (Kriebel et.al. 2001:875):
- Scientific studies can tell us something about the costs, risks, and benefits of a proposed action, but there will always be value judgments that require political decisions.
- The scientific data used for making policy will nearly always be limited by uncertainty. Even the best theory and data will leave much that is not known about estimates of risks, benefits, or costs.
- In conducting their research, scientists must make assumptions, choices, and inferences based on professional judgment and standard practices, that if not known by the public or policy makers, may make scientific results appear to be more certain and less value laden than is warranted.
- Although there are some situations in which risks clearly exceed benefits no matter whose values are being considered, there is usually a large gray area in which science alone cannot (and should not) be used to decide policy.
- In these gray areas, status quo activities that potentially threaten human and environmental health are often allowed to continue because the norms of traditional science demand high confidence in order to reject null hypotheses, and so detect harmful effects.
- This scientific conservatism is often interpreted as favoring the promoters of a potentially harmful technology or activity when the science does not produce overwhelming evidence of harm.
The precautionary principle, then, is meant to ensure that the public good is represented in all decisions made under scientific uncertainty. When there is substantial scientific uncertainty about the risks and benefits of a proposed activity, policy decisions should be made in a way that errs on the side of caution with respect to the environment and the health of the public.