A Role for Sigma Xi in Science Policy

by Heather Thorstensen | May 03, 2016

This is a guest post written by Sigma Xi President-Elect Tee Guidotti, who recently completed a term as the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy.

TeeGuidottiforBlog240x187Sigma Xi has two main missions, to protect and strengthen the research enterprise, including protecting its integrity, and to make science accessible to, and useful for, society. Both require active involvement in public policy. Members can expect to see more activity coming in science policy. 

What is this “science policy” of which I speak? 

Science policy is a well-established, coherent field of public service. It rests on the observation that there are two interacting relationships between science and public policy, commonly formulated (after Roger Pielke, Jr.) as “science for policy” and “policy for science.”  

Science for policy is the application of scientific knowledge to problems in public policy. This implies that the scientific knowledge is understood, digested, and integrated into policy options by those who shape and make decisions. Acceptance of advice is profoundly influenced by public understanding, appreciation for, and acceptance of science, and even more by the level of comprehension and acceptance by decision-makers. 

Policy for science is the formulation of public policy for the support and promotion of scientific research and STEM education. The natural tendency of governments and politicians is to look at research as an engine of economic growth and its output as the sum of its products, rather than the transformational power of science through awareness, understanding, and explanation. Funding agencies, scientific societies, and investigators in the basic sciences constantly resist pressure, usually from politicians, to judge all science solely on the industrial model of short-term return on investment, rather than the public good model of knowledge as a deep and growing resource.
A key insight of science policy studies is that the two sides of science policy interact, so that what is known and available as knowledge upon which to draw to solve problems in the present (in other words, science for policy) is limited by what support there has been in the past for research (in other words, the previous administration’s or regime’s policy for science). Similarly, current public support for scientific research is largely determined not by the achievements of science as a way of knowing about the world, which is what inquiry-driven science was designed to do, but by what has been deemed useful in the immediate past and has yielded wonder or familiar practical benefit. 

Detractors of science and policy skeptics, and they are legion, reduce this formulation to caricature. To them, “science for policy” means “take my word for it because you can’t understand” and “policy for science” means “budget more money” because “more research is needed.” This caricature leads to the pernicious perception that scientists and engineers are nothing more than an interest group like all other self-serving interest groups, whose concerns should be managed politically. This may seem like just ordinary anti-intellectual posturing but it is much deeper than that. It has its roots in genuine confusion over the role of science and who benefits from it. It also has roots in a pernicious intellectual argument still raging in the humanities (the attack on “logical positivism”) that was aimed at scientism (the belief that all problems can be solved by science alone) but hit an innocent victim (the concept of objective reality) instead. Overcoming this perception of science as self-serving, particularly at a time when trust in scientists is declining, is one of our biggest challenges. Professionals in the STEM disciplines usually have little patience and no desire to engage in such arguments and so abandon the field. 

Great scientists have distinguished themselves in public policy, separate from the contributions made through their scientific work and distinct from just expressing opinions: Einstein, Polanyi, Bush, Haldane, and Newton to name a few. Too often, however, science policy is viewed with disdain by scientists and engineers, who consider it to be no more than “science politics.” 

Such attitudes equate to surrendering the future of science to those in positions of power who least understand it. Indifference to science policy is an abnegation of responsibility, an invitation for research and the interests of scholars in the STEM disciplines to be manipulated and exploited by politics, money, and power. 

Rational public policy needs the input of science. Rationality in public policy requires a culture that appreciates objective truth, evidence, and logical thinking, in other words, the values of science. Science policy is therefore not just about good science well interpreted, but a culture of science. 

Sigma Xi can play a constructive role in science policy in many ways. Sigma Xi can, if members support the idea, provide training for improving members’ skills in science communication, serving (not pontificating) as good, “honest brokers” for science policy, promoting nonpartisan political and sociotechnical awareness,  invigilating integrity in science so that our own moral position is firm, and demonstrating effectiveness in advocating for support of, and analyzing policies for, science.  

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