Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Scientific Expertise and Its Role in Policy Decisions

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/08 at 10:14 PM

A recent issue of Science contained a short announcement: “U.S. Panel Urges Clearer, Cleaner Role for Science” (the abstract is here; the full text is behind a paywall). The article summarized a report produced by the Science for Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. A 13-member panel of academics, environmentalists, and industry leaders from both sides of the aisle (the full report can be downloaded here).

The report claims to establish guidelines for distinguishing between scientific questions and policy questions, for establishing scientific advisory panels, and for determining criteria for the evaluation of science used by these panels in formulating recommendations to regulatory panels and agencies. The key conclusion this report repeats ad nauseam is “transparency.” I would have liked to see the authors of the report expend more time articulating why transparency was a desideratum and how greater transparency might be achieved (although the report regularly refers to publicizing on the web various steps in the process of selecting scientific advisors or the studies used and soliciting comments, this seems a naive and too simplistic a solution).

The report raises, implicitly or explicitly, a number of issues that interest me. First, one of the key motivations for this report is to protect science, both the morale of scientists themselves and public faith in science. Second, the assumed centrality of scientific results in informing regulatory policy. Third, the report doesn’t seem to do justice to the problem of identifying experts and expertise. Finally, and closely related to the problem of experts, the report does not help us understand how to resolve questions in which the science is ambiguous, that is to say, when consensus amongst scientists is absent.

What this report, along with President Obama’s Memorandum on Scientific Integrity, indicate is the validity of Steven Shapin’s recent argument in his “Science and the Modern World,” in The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. He argues that the authority of science in our modern world rests not on society’s grasp of scientific beliefs or some experimental method, but in knowing who the relevant authorities are and where to find them. Unfortunately, over the course of the 20th century science was increasingly and effectively enfolded into the institutions of government and business, institutions dedicated to the projection of power and the production of wealth. Consequently, the independence of science and its integrity has become more and more problematic. It is probably too much to hope that the report by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the memorandum issued by President Obama will usher in a new era and will, as the article in Science claims, “go a long way to correcting the mistakes of the past 8 years,” disentangling science from the political institutions that have come to rely on it and on which it has come to depend.

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