At the Crossroads of Science and Public Policy: David Goldston Speaks at SNRE

1/14/2008

By David Fribushí‚  

There are few issues that highlight the divide between science and policy like those raised by the study of natural resources and environment. While climate change is the most obvious example, it is hard to think of any scientific inquiry in this field that does not ultimately lead to a question about appropriate public policy. It was quite fitting, then, that David Goldston, who has spent most of his career at the intersection of science and policy, should conclude the 2008 Deaní¢â‚¬â„¢s Speaker Series.

Mr. Goldston is currently a Scholar in Residence at Princeton University, having recently left his post as Staff Director of the House Committee on Science. This committee has jurisdiction over most of the federal civilian and research budget, including programs run by the EPA and Department of Energy. As such, Mr. Goldston has witnessed the many ways that science is used, misused, and misunderstood in the formation of public policy.

Mr. Goldston began by dispelling the notion that under the current administration, science has been the victim of some sort of systematic attack. í¢â‚¬Å“Science is still viewed as the objective gold standard for argument,í¢â‚¬  he explained, and the proportion of non-defense discretionary spending on science has remained virtually unchanged in nearly forty years. The ongoing fact-or-fiction debate in Congress over climate change - as if the International Panel on Climate Change reports did not exist í¢â‚¬“ is actually a rare example of political disregard for scientific consensus.

The problem, he argued, is not that politicians are ignoring science; it is that they turn to science too often as a way to avoid the tougher policy questions that science raises. í¢â‚¬Å“People are not openly debating the issues really confronting the countryí¢â‚¬ ¦instead the issues are structured as if theyí¢â‚¬â„¢re factual questions of science,í¢â‚¬  he explained, and many politicians believe that í¢â‚¬Å“if you frame an issue as a science issue, the science will give you only one answer. The science will be factual and objective. The science will put experts who are hard to attack on your side. Everything is framed to be a question of science.í¢â‚¬ 

As an example he described the 1997 debate over standards on airborne particulates and ground-level ozone. There was virtually unanimous consensus in the scientific community that there is no level at which ground level ozone does not have adverse health effects. With no threshold levels for safety, the only way to determine an acceptable ozone level was to decide how many hospital admissions were tolerable. This was not, of course, a question any politician wanted to publicly discuss. So the issue became framed as a science issue. Scientists were called before Congress and asked to define a threshold value for acceptable ozone levels, even though they had already stated there was no safe level. It became a í¢â‚¬Å“policy question masquerading as a science question,í¢â‚¬  despite the fact that science had already given its answer.

Exacerbating the natural tension between science and policy in recent years has been the increasing polarization of politics. This encourages politicians to turn to science, a field generally seen as above the fray, to get the publicí¢â‚¬â„¢s attention. Science then becomes more of a weapon than a tool, especially when it is used to attack political opponents. í¢â‚¬Å“What happens,í¢â‚¬  he explained, í¢â‚¬Å“is that first science gets put on a pedestalí¢â‚¬ ¦and the only way to counter it is to drag it down again.í¢â‚¬ 

To restore more balance to the policy/science relationship, Mr. Goldston argued that scientists and policymakers must first clearly define whether the question at hand is indeed a science question. The debate about the use of stem cells in medical research, for example, is a debate about values, not science, and politicians should not pretend science is at issue. When there is a legitimate scientific question, such as estimating the effects of climate change, the role of science should be to provide politicians with the best available research. It should not be to determine what to do with that information, or to decide what level of certainty is required to act. í¢â‚¬Å“Scientists can explain the level of uncertainty and what the risks and benefits of acting might be,í¢â‚¬  Mr. Goldston explained. í¢â‚¬Å“But when politicians ask, í¢â‚¬ËœIs it certain enough that we should act?í¢â‚¬â„¢ as a scientist the answer should be, í¢â‚¬ËœThatí¢â‚¬â„¢s your problem.í¢â‚¬â„¢í¢â‚¬  As a concerned citizen, he added, the scientist could or even should have an answer.

While Mr. Goldston advocates that scientists get involved in policy discussions, he cautions scientists to be clear with themselves and their audience about when they are speaking in their role as scientists and when they are speaking as concerned citizens. Politicians will inevitably try to draw science into the policy debate, yet it is the responsibility of scientists to keep the science/policy line drawn as clearly as possible. Furthermore, scientists should not make the error of í¢â‚¬Å“If you knew what I knew youí¢â‚¬â„¢d think what I think.í¢â‚¬  That is, scientific evidence does not necessitate a given policy. Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of a particular problem, it may be a completely legitimate policy decision to do nothing at all.

í¢â‚¬Å“Part of knowing what youí¢â‚¬â„¢re talking about,í¢â‚¬  Mr. Goldston concluded, í¢â‚¬Å“is not assuming that every issue comes down to science. Ití¢â‚¬â„¢s important for scientists to be active. Ití¢â‚¬â„¢s important for scientists to inform the policy process...But if thatí¢â‚¬â„¢s going to work in a way that doesní¢â‚¬â„¢t detract from science or policy, people have to understand that science and policy are not identical.í¢â‚¬ 

With the recent climate conference in Bali seeming to signal a shift by the United States federal government from debating climate change science to debating climate change policy, the tensions between climate scientists and climate policymakers are bound to increase. í¢â‚¬Å“I always have joked with the environmental community that theyí¢â‚¬â„¢re going to look back at this debate about whether climate change is real as the good olí¢â‚¬â„¢ days. Because thatí¢â‚¬â„¢s easy,í¢â‚¬  Mr. Goldston said. The hard part, he made clear, is deciding what, if anything, to do about it.

<p><a href="mailto:dfri@umich.edu">David Fribush</a></p>