How Science Should Affect Public Policy

December 15, 2016

Tee GuidottiInterpreting science to address social needs is one of Sigma Xi’s most challenging functions, and our role in informing public policy, in particular, is growing. We aim to improve and go beyond the stereotypes of the science guru or the “horse whisperer” who speaks in special, interspecies language. 

Decision makers, such as representatives in Congress and Parliament, expect to receive in context the technical knowledge that makes for better decisions. The context about which decision makers are concerned is not scientific: It is political and economic. 

Contemporary studies of science policy begin with Roger A. Pielke Jr.’s book The Honest Broker (Cambridge University Press, 2007). The “honest broker” is expected to provide accurate, neutral, and contextualized knowledge in a way that the decision maker can understand without having a technical education or background. The Science and Technology Policy Fellowships from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are based on this concept. The honest broker must always guard against abusing trust by insinuating personal opinion and conviction under the guise of strict objectivity, thereby becoming a “stealth advocate.” 

Even so, there is nothing wrong with science advocacy, as long as motives and opinions are not concealed and the debate is grounded in evidence. (Pielke does not make this clear in the book.) Advocacy informs the public sphere in policy development, expert legal testimony, program design, budget priorities, and risk management. Indeed, advocacy for a position or interpretation is how science itself moves forward.

Pielke mentions two other models, but they are theoretical and have essentially no viable role. The “pure scientist” model does not work in policy, because scientific knowledge for policy requires contextualization. The “science arbiter” model, which limits the role of the scientist to advising on questions already asked and resolving disputes, assumes that the relevant questions are already formed and articulated.

Scientists don’t hold expertise in the form of only facts. Just as important are conceptual frameworks, limitations of method used, interpolation in missing evidence, correcting for known biases, and the ineffable sense of skepticism when a finding or conclusion is implausible. These intangibles, which belong to what Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge,” are reflected in the depth and experience the science expert brings to giving advice. 

Science informing public policy involves a complicated and often fraught relationship between the scientist and the decision maker based on trust, communication, reciprocal comprehension, and skepticism. That is what makes the ability to effectively articulate and advise on science for policy a special skill distinct from research skills and technical scientific communication. Being an effective science advisor requires skills that have to be learned. Leadership in Sigma Xi is an excellent way to develop these skills. 

Tee Guidotti's signature

Tee. L. Guidotti
Sigma Xi President


More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety