One issue when politics interfere with science involves policy being abolished even though it is needed for doing the work of science. For example, the inclusion of animals in research has been proven effective for developing new drug therapies that help human beings prevent or fight illness (Pierce 2013). However, animal-rights advocates challenge the ethics of using living beings in clinical drug trials. The conflict is relevant in terms of federally-funded research. A politician may want to avoid supporting science that would allow the research to still take place if it is aiming to abide to a set of animal-rights advocates as voters. Or, a politician may want to avoid supporting the science that would allow the research to still take place if it is facing budget constraints and needs to choose amongst a set of studies to fund. Or, if the new drug therapies are going to be sold by a competitor of an elected official’s ally, it is not going to want to allow animals to conduct the research. That said, there are multiple reasons why politics interfere with even a single scientific project.
The perspective from Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) caught my eye in Margo Pierce’s article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Piece depicted a politician noting how the general framework used to approach politics interferes does not align with the scientific method. The latter is open to asking questions, considering a variety of evidence for solving a problem and engaging in constructive analysis in order to find the best possible answer (Pierce 2013). A strategy to address the knowledge gap between elected officials and scientists is to change the type of involvement scientists have in politics. Instead of seeing scientists as lobbyists, they need to be perceived as mentors (Pierce 2013). Further, the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy created a program through the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota to help science improve public policy by addressing the knowledge gap between elected officials and scientists (Pierce 2013). The root of the program is improving communication between the groups. The AAAS illustrates a key difference between civilians and elected officials is their differing relationships with science. While civilians value it, they may not want to do the work to understand it (Pierce 2013). On the other hand, politicians show they do not value it because they have the tools to use experts for informing policy but want avoid it and cut off communication channels. The Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program is set up to bring the experts to the policy-making discussion (Pierce 2013). These teams help local government officials and the public to make informed decisions on climate variability and change and its impacts (Pierce 2013). In 2011, RISA’s Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center (GLISA) completed their review of nearly 50 reports and assessments of the effects of climate change and variability in the Great Lakes region (Pierce 2013). Having a report such as this at the disposal of politicians is a needed step in addressing the knowledge gap between elected officials and scientists. Still, as Holt addressed, until politicians focus on needing to find the best possible answer to a problem, as opposed to one that vaguely acknowledges the presence of issues on the agenda, the politicians will not be motivated to consider the details contained in given scientific reports.
Pierce, Margo. 2013. “The Intersection of Science and Public Policy.” The American Association for the Advancement of Science. January 22.
Comment by Professor Morgan:
The introduction to your post does a great job of showing how different perspectives will change you people see science. We should keep that in mind when thinking about which stakeholders can have power and how to approach influencing decision makers.
Hi Professor Morgan,
Yes, in the introduction’s example, it would be important to know which politicians may want to avoid supporting the research. Perhaps, looking into the background of how the opposing politicians formed the perspective would help in approaching the influential decision-makers because one would be informed about how the politicians personally relate to the cause.
Original Post by Chris Bonham:
Politicians are not trained or necessarily highly educated in environmental science and must rely on scientists and specialists to provide any related objective scientific informationthey need to help make policy decisions. The problem with this however, is that politicians do not always understand or fully comprehend the scientific information and then must use other stakeholders to attempt to decipher the information and decide how to use it in developing policy. In addition, there is often conflicting and overlapping responsibility between federal environmental agencies and unintended bureaucratic litigation takes place (Rosenbaum 2020, 85). With so many back and forth interpretations often the real message or idea has been lost. Furthermore, politicians often will amend or edit the information how they see fit, usually however would get them the most votes next election.
A great example of the bureaucracy stems from the Clean Water Act, where language in the policy was ambiguous as it referred to regulations on “navigable waters.” Thus began the “Waters of the US” or WOTUS War in defining and interpreting what navigable waters meant which still goes on today (Rosenbaum 2020, 69). The example illustrates the importance of engaging with stakeholders and ensuring terms are well defined during policy development.
One speaker at the Union of Concerned Scientists (2014, 14:00) agreed that federal policy is a slow bureaucratic process and that using local scientists can help in the process. Local scientists know and value local resources the most, and although they must remain objective, have the most interest in the issues. Courts often become involved with statutory interpretation as well and judges are often placed in positions to make decisions they are not qualified for. The most interesting idea I read about this week is in regards to a science court, where a board of scientists who are knowledgeable in the subject would evaluate scientific cases and litigation (Rosenbaum 2020, 98). I have never thought of this before but absolutely love the idea!
Rosenbaum, Walter A. 2020. Environmental Politics and Policy. 11th ed. Thousand Oaks: CQ Press.
Union of Concerned Scientists. 2014. “Science and Policy Change: Using Your Expertise to Influence the Policy-Making Process.” YouTube. September 15.
Awesome post highlighting the disconnect between politicians and scientists. I agree with the claim from your post’s last paragraph and am particularly concerned about its truth in regard to public health regulations. According to The New York Times, the Trump administration aims to limit the amount of research the government is permitted to use in forming public health legislation (Friedman 2019). The article depicts the way structural violence is used to slow the political process. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a proposal called Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science which requires scientists to disclose confidential medical records before the government can even consider a study’s conclusions (Friedman 2019). Asking scientists to be unethical for the sake of abiding to the government’s processes is the type of leadership driving a significant amount of smart scientists out of Washington. When a professional has dedicated a life’s work to a certain discipline, its loyalty is firm. Rather, these are the types of scientists the United States government needs to be attracting onto its team.
Friedman, Lisa. 2019. “E.P.A. to Limit Science Used to Write Public Health Rules.” The New York Times. November 11
Response by Chris Bonham:
Hi Mary and Professor,
Thanks for the comments! There definitely seems to be a gap between what scientists are reporting and what is being considered by decision-makers. Professor Morgan is right, in that there are many scientific advisory boards and committees that help translate the scientific data into more understandable terms for politicians. The LSE GV314 Group (2018) in the UK actually found these committees do such a good job at translating there is rarely a political bias or distortion that occurs. Of course this study was done in Britain and under different leadership. Hopefully, our current administration will begin paying more attention to science when formulating environmental policy.
The LSE GV314 Group. 2018. “Politicians in White Coats? Scientific Advisory committees and Policy in Britain.” Sage Journals 33, 4: 428-446. https://doi-org.du.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/0952076717711746
Original Post by Josh Mabis:
Politics interfering with science is one of the calling cards of the current administration. The Trump administration has been fighting climate change and all of the accepted science that has been established on climate change. Right after Trump took office, sections of government websites were deleted or changed to make no mention of climate change. Links to the United Nations’ reports on climate change have been deleted. “A nine-paragraph description of melting glaciers, wildfires and invasive species driven by climate change has been pared down to a single, noncommittal line… The impacts of climate change have led the department to focus on how we manage our nation’s public lands and resources (Milman and Morris 2017). As we saw from some of the other readings, the administration has been fighting every type of science possible, including with Covid-19.
The administration has also been going against any science related to public lands. They are ignoring environmental impact statements and having ones changed that were completed during the Obama administration to allow extractive industries to do what they want with some of our pristine public lands.
I would highly recommend everyone watch the documentary Public Trust, which was done by Patagonia and is currently free on Youtube. It talks about the ongoing fight to protect Bears Ears, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Boundary Waters, along with other attacks on public lands.
Milman, Oliver and Sam Morris. 2017. “Trump is deleting climate change, one site at a time.” The Guardian, May 14, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/14/donald-trump-climate-change-mentions-government-websites
Quality post showing the lack of transparency exhibited by the Trump administration is evident. According to the New York Times, President Trump has spoken about how government relations involving climate scientists interfere with enhancing fossil-fuel production (Plumer and Davenport 2019). However, I agree with the American Chemistry Council as it emphasized “we should embrace” the role of science in policy (Plumer and Davenport 2019). Groups such as NASA leverage the power of Congress to continue receiving government approval for projects (Plumer and Davenport 2019). The New York Times emphasized United States grounds for leadership stems from science (Plumer and Davenport 2019). Therefore, the role of science impacts international policy-making in terms of the spread of information, as well.
Plumer, Brad and Davenport, Coral. “Science Under Attack: How Trump Is Sidelining Researchers and Their Work.” The New York Times. December 28.