Current Literature: Science Policy and the US Presidential Election

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“Current Literature” is a recurring feature highlighting recent publications of interest on the science-policy interface.

With the US Presidential Election just a week away, science policy is not at the top of the mainstream media’s agenda. Over the course of three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, moderators asked a grand total of zero questions regarding anthropogenic climate change, despite the urgings of environmental activists, and despite Hillary Clinton’s effort to incorporate the topic into her answer to a question about energy policy. With arguably the most pressing science policy issue missing from campaign coverage, it is perhaps unsurprising that “lesser” issues like space exploration and pharmaceutical development are also nowhere to be found.

However, if science reporting has failed to infiltrate the political media’s presidential coverage, the presidential election has certainly not failed to enter into the science-focused media. To that effect, both Science and Nature have published several short-form pieces covering science policy topics in their relation to US national politics. In addition to being interesting in their own right, the articles illustrate a recurring blindspot in discussions of the science-policy interface: the tendency to conceive of science policy interactions as “objective” and apolitical, without acknowledging that normative disagreements cannot be so easily removed from discussions of politics and policy.

Science’s “A Short Presidential Reading List” andScience Lessons for the Next President”

Science editor-in-chief Jeremy Berg pens a lead-off editorial arguing the importance of science policy decision-making for the next president. Berg provides a brief history of the origins of the role of presidential science advisor in the US before segueing into a discussion Vannevar Bush, the first individual appointed as Head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, and two of his seminal publications.

The first publication, 1945’s “Science, The Endless Frontier,” an internal report prepared by Bush for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, details what Berg terms a “compelling vision for the role of science in society” (p. 265). Covering a broad range of the key elements of science policy, the document was influential in the establishment of the National Science Foundation in 1950 (Berg, 2016). The second, the Atlantic magazine article “As We May Think,” foretold the coming information age and its significance to human society, making prescient predictions that are still being realized today (the article is still available on The Atlantic’s website and is well worth reading, even for an individual who never expects to assume the office of the US presidency).

Berg argues that the incoming president should read these two Bush publications, in order to obtain a “strong framework” (p. 265) in which to make decisions about how to appoint individuals effectively to science advisory positions, as well as how to best process their advice.

Though Berg’s article presents both interesting details about the history of science advice to the US government and worthwhile reading recommendations for anyone interested in the subject, it is notable for its lack of reference to the existing science policy platforms of the two major party candidates. Rather, Berg seems to assume a fundamental agreement about the importance of certain policy goals that may not exist in practice. He argues that the next president “must ensure that the government has access to robust advice about scientific issues to guide policy development,” (p. 265) and “must set the tone regarding the importance of science in the nation’s progress” (p. 265), without considering whether one candidate’s stated views might not accord with the idea that science, and policy outcomes germane to scientists, are worthwhile political outcomes.

The same oversight recurs, perhaps more egregiously, in another Science article: “Science Lessons for the Next President” by David Malakoff and Jeffrey Mervis. Malakoff and Mervis, noting that unanticipated technical and scientific issues have often come to dominate a president’s tenure, provide an overview of six areas of science that are likely to have policy significance during the next president’s tenure. These six areas are the evolution of treatment resistant pathogens; advances in genetic engineering and the development of “gene drives”; sea level rise; neurological health and treatment of neurological disorders; the advent of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles; and the need for proper risk assessment methods.

For each of these science/policy issues, Malakoff and Mervis provide an overview of the current state of the science (“What Science Says”), discuss the potential impacts of recent developments for society (“Why It Matters”), and then discuss the implications of these developments and their impacts for the future of US public policy (“Pending Policy Issues”). Despite its title, the piece is surely intended as much for a general audience as it is for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in particular, and thus the absence of a fourth element to these overviews (“What the Candidates/Parties Say”) is significant. Once again, the assumption presented is that both candidates will naturally pursue the “right” decisions on science policy issues, without any consideration of how normative political outlooks might influence the perception of what the “right” policy outcomes would be.

Nature’s “House Science Panel Flexes Its Muscle” and “Scientists Who Back Trump”

Nature’s own pre-election reporting emphasizes the shortcomings of the journalistically objective, balanced approach taken in the two Science articles. Jeff Tollefson’s “House Science Panel Flexes its Muscle” reports on US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Smith assumed the chairmanship in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that a party-line committee vote granted him unilateral authority to issue subpoenas. Since acquiring that authority, Smith has issued subpoenas to 24 citizens, officials, and organizations, investigating a range of science policy matters.

As Tollefson notes, Smith’s primary focus has been climate change: he has issued subpoenas to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for releasing a study disputing the idea of a “global warming pause,” state attorneys general who are investigating Exxon Mobil for allegedly misleading the public about the risks of climate change, and eight environmental groups who allege that fossil fuel companies may have knowingly spread misinformation about climate science.

Tollefson’s reporting highlights the problem with an “apolitical” approach to discussing science policy in the context of a presidential election: in the United States, at least, one of the two major parties openly rejects the idea that issues like sea level rise constitute relevant science policy issues. Indeed, as Smith’s investigations of NOAA et al. emphasize, one major US political party rejects the underlying science of climate change outright, and even seems to regard scientists researching the matter as potentially motivated from nefarious anti-corporate motives. As a closing statement from one of Smith’s subordinates—one Mark Marin, who notes that “[t]he chairman is interested in continuing this investigation until he gets what he is looking for” (qtd. In Tollefson, 2016, p. 300) emphasizes, the results of the committee’s investigations are unlikely to result in a change in their perceptions of the salience of climate change to the policy conversation in the US.

Sara Reardon’s “Scientists Who Support Donald Trump,” from the same issue of Nature, demonstrates that differences of opinion over the proper course of science policy extend beyond elected politicians. In a brief article profiling various scientists who intend to vote for the Republican candidate and presenting statistics on the ideological breakdown of researchers in various scientific fields, Reardon solicits several notable quotes from her subjects.

Most significant are the comments of statistician William Briggs, who argues that Trump’s lack of a science policy platform and rejection of climate science are positive approaches to science: in contravention to the views advanced in the two Science articles, Briggs suggests that the “federal government has become too involved in setting the scientific agenda” (qtd. in Reardon, 2016, p. 299) and that Obama has abused science in service of his agenda on climate and energy policy. Ultimately, not even all scientifically minded people agree that a president must be prepared to deal with policy matters like sea level rise resulting from climate change, or even that a robust federal science policy is ipso facto desirable.

All four of the articles here discussed (as well as several other politically-focused pieces in the current issues of Science and Nature) are well worth reading for anyone interested in the intersections of science, policy, and politics. However, the selections from Science demand a reader approach with a critical eye and the knowledge that, in striving for journalistic balance, essential details about the potential differences in the future of science policy in the United States are excluded in favour of a questionable assumption that the “best” science policy is an objective matter that can be resolved in a purely apolitical fashion.

 

References

Berg, J. (2016, October 21). A short presidential reading list. Science, 354(6310), 265. doi: 10.1126/science.aal2121

Malakoff, D., & Mervis, J. (2016, October 21). Science lessons for the next president. Science, 354(6310), 274-279. doi: 10.1126/science.354.6310.274

Reardon, S. (2016, October 20). The scientists who support Donald Trump. Nature, 538, 298-299. doi:10.1038/538298a

Tollefson, J. (2016, October 20). House science panel flexes its muscle. Nature, 538, 300. doi:10.1038/538300a

 

Further Reading

Ashwell, D. J. (2016). The challenges of science journalism: The perspectives of scientists, science communication advisors and journalists from New Zealand. Public Understanding of Science, 25(3), 373-393. doi: 10.1177/0963662514556144

Graves, L. (2016). Deciding what’s true: The rise of political fact-checking in American journalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lavelle, M. (2016, October 10). Climate change treated as afterthought in second presidential debate. Inside Climate News. Retrieved from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/10102016/presidential-debate-town-hall-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-climate-change-global-warming

Ross, J. D. (2016, May 14). The conflict between journalistic balance and scientific credibility in science reporting [web log post]. Retrieved from http://eiui.ca/current-literature-the-conflict-between-journalistic-balance-and-scientific-credibility-in-science-reporting/

Weingart, P., & Guenther, L. (2016). Science communication and the issue of trust. Journal of Science Communication, 15(5), 1-11.

 

Author: James Ross

 

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