May 23, 2007

Scientific Policy

Posted in policy, science at 5:15 pm by saracallow

I have spent the last semester in school doing an independent study focused on policymaking in highly technical and scientific areas.  It has been a great learning experience.  I wrote the following paper for the culminating project – It basically just sumarizes my learnings.  If you’re interested in learning more about this type of policy making….  read on… if not, don’t worry… it’s a bit long for a blog!

As a citizen, we need only listen to the latest sound bite in the news regarding stem cell research, or overhear a bit of the global warming debate to understand the complexity and importance of science in policy making. Highly scientific and technical issues comprise a large share of the political debate in our country today. What regulations are necessary in genetically modified foods? How do we achieve a balance between economic interests and clean air or water? Is it possible to navigate the public storms surrounding regulation of the internet, carbon dioxide, or embryonic stems cells and arrive at some policy position which most of us can respect, if not necessarily agree with? There are many difficulties inherent to policy making in highly scientific and technical areas. Several academics have discussed these difficulties, and some have even offered suggestions for improving the policy-making process. This paper hopes to give a brief summary and explanation of some of the challenges inherent to policy making in highly technical and scientific areas and to review the proposed suggestions for improving the process.  In addition, it aims to pinpoint some key learnings focused on incorporating and balancing scientific truth with the demands of democracy.

The Difficult Reality of Policy Making in Highly Scientific Areas           

      There are several challenges to making policy in highly scientific and technical areas.  The litigious culture of the United States, the tension between different conceptions as to how scientific knowledge is developed, the communication issues and development of appropriate information in the regulatory process and the integration of personal values all contribute to the complexity of this type of policy making.

Scientific policy making faces unique challenges in the United States. Sheila Jasanoff, in Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States, takes a comparative look at scientific knowledge in the US, Britain and
Germany. According to Jasanoff, while all democratic societies have a mechanism for holding science accountable, in the United States, there is a greater demand for transparency between science and the general public. Jasanoff tells us that “[t]he
U.S. accountability system owes its special flavor to the extraordinary prevalence of litigation. Truth, in this template, emerges only from aggressive testing in a competitive forum” (Jasanoff, 2005, p. 262). As a contrast, in both Britain and Germany, truth is more dependent on “greater trust in expertise” (Jasanoff, 2005, p. 262). The
United States is unique in its expectations that scientific information withstand the glaring eye of public examination through the judicial process. According to Anne and Richard Hiskes, the unique expectations of science policy in the United States may have partly developed as a result of what they term “logical empiricism”, or the public expectation that science is very data based and objective. 

There is a tension between logical empiricism and the reality of the development of scientific knowledge.  As the Hiskes’ explain, the dominant view of science as logical empiricism is slowly being replaced by one that recognizes that the development of scientific information takes place through a cultural and values driven process. Jasanoff also comments on this developing view of science, calling it the constructivist view– a system where “knowledge accumulates through negotiation and consensus among members of the scientific community”(Jasanoff, 2000, p. 63). Jasanoff also notes Rushefsky has asserted that, “the scientific component of the exercise can never be wholly separated from its value components” (Jasanoff, 1996, p. 6).

As the communication of scientific information used in policymaking is examined, it quickly becomes clear how much more accurate the constructivist point of view is than the concept of logical empiricism. In Science at EPA: Information in the Regulatory Process, Mark Powell discusses the development and communication of science throughout the regulatory process. “Charged with ‘making the trains run on time,’ EPA office directors and program managers are understandably bottom line oriented. Intense time and budgetary pressures can understandably lead to a desire for simplicity” (Powell, 1999, p. 46). As decision makers face time constraints, they need science delivered in a very digestible and simplistic format. This leaves an important role for intermediaries. “Intermediaries can serve constructively to bridge the gap between the science and policy domains and can legitimately use their interpretations of the scientific information to support policy recommendations. They can also distort, reduce, or block the signal of science received by nonscientific decisionmakers. Intermediaries sometimes use science to buttress or camouflage their policy positions” (Powell, 1999, p. 46). Additionally, in the interest of presenting decisionmakers with a balanced set of information, Powell tells us that viewpoints which are in the considerable minority in the scientific community can be given over-representation. As science makes its through the agency, there are many opportunities for the communication process to distort and influence in the information.    

To make things even more challenging, decisionmakers are rarely able develop scientific information which addresses the narrow areas or specific locations for which they are creating regulations. Time pressures and budgetary constraints do not allow for the development of specific studies. Instead, decisionmakers are often forced to apply findings from studies looking at similar situations and interpret how these results may apply to the current situation. Complicating the reality of this uncertainty, the “preferred method for displaying objectivity [in the US] in public decisions has been to clothe the reasons . . . as far as possible in the language of numbers” (Jasanoff, 2005, p. 265). Jasanoff tells us that risk assessment has become the vehicle of choice for enhancing the appearance of objectivity. However, “[s]tudy after study and commentary after commentary called attention to the profoundly normative character of risk assessment, showing that it is a far from objective method” (Jasanoff, 2005, p. 267).

In addition to communication issues and dealing with the uncertainty of information, scientific knowledge can also be subject to the specific values of competing interests. According to Sarewitz, “[w]hen an issue is both politically and scientifically contentious, then one’s point of view can usually be supported with an array of legitimate facts that seem no less compelling than the facts assembled by those with a different perspective. In the midst of such controversy, the boundary between facts and values invariably becomes much fuzzier than we often make it out to be” (Sarewitz, 2000, 79-98). Sabatier, in his work on the advocacy coalition framework, tells us that intense debate surrounding technical issues may belie a conflict over core values.  This can be especially difficult territory to navigate in policy making. “In the extreme, for some policy issues the complexity and uncertainty are sufficient to admit wholly divergent belief systems whose epistemological foundations are so dissimilar that common bases for evaluating the validity of policy-relevant assertions are lacking entirely” (Sabatier, 1993, p. 51). 

 Anne and Richard Hiskes assert, and indeed the history of science and its place in the courts confirms, that our system still tends to reflect the concept of logical empiricism. A consistent belief among scientists and the public regarding the reality of the development of scientific knowledge would invariably make the policy making process much less difficult and would allow our systems to reflect this reality. Unfortunately, while some are beginning to recognize science as a cultural and values driven process, the public as a whole has yet to embrace this view. According to one article, while scientists and those working closely with science largely recognize the constructive nature of the development of scientific knowledge, the public at large continues to hold the view of logical empiricism (Steel et al., 2004). Steel and his coauthors call the idea that science is objective a “positivist” view. Their study shows that “those that are personally most involved in the scientific process and producing research results (scientists), and those responsible for integrating those results in the management of public lands (managers), are the most critical about the scientific process and least receptive to positivist beliefs. [In contrast], representatives of interest groups and the public, who often support and call for science-based environmental management, are the most trusting of the research produced and most accepting of positivist beliefs” (Steel et al., 2004, p.6). The conflict between these two groups leads to an inevitable tension in policy making and results in the need to balance scientific realities with public expectations, and presents the difficult challenge of achieving credibility for scientists and public legitimization of the process.

Interestingly, Steel et al’s analysis suggests something definitive regarding the integration of science in the policymaking process. While those involved closely with science view the positivistic nature of science differently than the general public and interest groups, all parties agreed that science should be part of the policy making process. The need to integrate science in the policy making process is clear. The road for how to do it is amazingly conflicted. As most details of scientific policy are subject to the rulemaking process, before beginning to make suggestions regarding improvement in the system, it is important to have a brief overview of how rulemaking has changed over time.

A Brief History of Scientific Policy Making and the Rulemaking Process

            Martin Shapiro, in Who Guards the Guardians, provides a clear overview of the policy making process and its development against a backdrop of changing philosophical currents in political thought. According to Shapiro, the process has progressed from one that protected individual property rights, to a system based on pluralism, and finally one requiring synopticism in decision making. 

According to Shapiro, before the New Deal, administrative law was characterized by a desire to protect personal property rights and interests against the state. This status was a reflection of the Diceyan position, which saw government as equal to any other interest; conflicts between government and individuals were best decided in court, with government treated like any other individual. The Administrative Procedures Act (APA) was passed in 1946, and was a “[g]rand compromise between the Diceyan view and the New Deal view” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 40). It allowed for the substitution of “administrative adjudications conducted within the agencies rather than in the regular courts” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 40). However, it required these adjudications be “conducted almost as if they were trials” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 40). This part of the APA generally enshrined already existing practices.  However, the APA also addressed the process of rulemaking, an activity conducted by administrative agencies, through which the details of statutes passed by Congress are hammered out, and which had risen enormously as a result of the New Deal legislation. 

            Rulemaking is where a tremendous amount of policymaking takes place. Congress often passes statutes which authorize agencies within the administration to decide the details. In effect, it is a delegation of the power to make law.  “Agencies had been delegated some rule-making powers by Congress from the earliest days of the Republic.  During the New Deal, however, the amount of this delegation increased enormously” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 43). As a result, the APA attempted to deal with this process. The APA’s attempt “requires that the agency give notice that it is contemplating a rule, receive comments from interested outsiders, print its final rule in the Federal Register and accompany the published rule with a concise and general statement of its basis and purpose” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 44). The APA allows for rules to be reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals.  According to Shapiro, these initial attempts at regulating the rulemaking process by the APA were reflective of the Diceyan philosophy, requiring government to protect the rights of individuals by giving them an opportunity for “notice and comment” before infringing on their legal rights and allowing them to challenge government as equals in court.

            However, according to Shaprio, in the sixties and seventies, things began to change. “[T]he then-dominant theory of pluralism was poured into the nearly empty rule-making provisions of the APA” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 45). Initially, more groups were given “standing” in court. This increased the number of parties who were able to have a say in challenging rules and therefore have their opinions factored into the creation of rules. “Eventually, anyone who was ‘arguably within the zone of interests’ protected by a statute and had suffered even the slightest injury in fact was granted standing” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 45). The next step in increasing pluralism in rulemaking was to ensure that “government actually listened to what the groups had to say and then did what they wanted” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 46). Courts began to require that agencies not only receive comments, but respond to them. The idea was to ensure that agencies were listening to the input provided by the public. The final change as a result of pluralism was “the invention by the courts of an entirely new procedural requirement for rule making, the requirement of a rule-making record” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 48).  Not included in the APA and, according to Shapiro counter to the more informal process previously established, the requirement of the rule-making record set the stage for the next phase of change to come.

            As disillusionment with pluralism began to grow, the idea of “a public interest or a right public policy quite apart from the sum of group interests” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 49) began to take hold.  Synopticism began to replace the ideals of pluralism. Requirements for standing began to change, allowing nearly anyone, not just groups with enough money or resources to challenge a rule. In addition, courts began to carefully review the rule-making record, and overturn any decision where it appeared the agency had failed to respond to comments. “By the 1970s courts were increasingly demanding that rule making be synoptic” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 52). This was a drastic change.  Agencies not only had to listen to input from all affected parties, but also review all potential issues surrounding the policy area. 

            As Shapiro tells us, “[s]ynopticism demanded substantively right answers arrived at by fully articulating values and analyzing facts and alternatives—the right answer by the right analysis” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 54). The American public came to expect synopticism in policy decisions, and an open rule-making process. This expectation of the public and court system, combined with the realities of the development of scientific knowledge as a cultural and values driven process, forces agencies involved in policy-making (especially in highly scientific and technical areas) into a very precarious position in which balancing the realities of knowledge development and the expectations of the public is increasingly difficult. 

Where Are We Now?

            Several authors have addressed the process of rule-making and the conflicts and tensions inevitable in this part of policy making. Many have offered recommendations for improvement.  In thinking about the process and looking at future recommendations, it is important to begin with a brief overview of some of the suggestions for improvement. While not comprehensive, it is interesting to examine the way different authors have defined the problem and their varying suggestions regarding the policy making process.


Lowi’s Critique and Recommendation

            In his well known work, The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States, Theodore Lowi offers a fairly stark critique of the rulemaking process and some fairly significant suggestions for its improvement. Lowi believes that the roots of our government in capitalism have created an inevitable slide towards bureaucratic dominance. Unfortunately, according to Lowi, administration is practically the antithesis of orthodox laissez faire capitalism – and the struggle between administration and capitalism lead to a weakening of the capitalist system.       

     As administration grew, Lowi contends that we embarked upon a “second republic” and constitution for the United States. He sees this republic best described as Interest Group Liberalism. He describes IGL as “[p]arceling out policy-making power to the most interested parties” and believes that this “destroy[s] political responsibility” (Lowi, 1979, p. 59).  Lowi contends that IGL is basically policy without law. By defining only very broad statutes and leaving the rest to the administrative agencies, Congress fails to produce actual laws and disengages from the substantive debate. While the system may initially seem flexible because it allows for much local input, Lowi characterizes it as “illegitimate.” Lowi cites several case studies that he believes demonstrate the ineffectiveness of IGL and show that the public view it as an illegitimate process. Lowi contends that IGL is not legitimate lawmaking and therefore cannot plan or achieve justice.

            As an answer, Lowi offers up “Juridical Democracy,” which he calls the “rule of law operating in institutions” (Lowi, 1979, p. 298). Basically, this is a call for the original constitutional “job descriptions” of our branches. Lowi would like to see a nearly complete elimination of the bureaucratic agencies acting as legislator, and have those responsibilities restored to Congress. He believes that restoring and expanding the rule of law would right the government. Congress should only turn laws over to administrative agencies which clearly define a problem and give specific criteria for administration of the law by those agencies. Presidents should veto laws that do not meet this standard. Agencies should, when forced, make rules early in the process and redefine those rules according to cases brought to the specifics of the rule. Lowi believes this would elevate the debate surrounding key issues and legitimize the agencies’ work. He also thinks Congress should work at codification: “systemize, digest, and simplify all of the provisions of law relating to a particular subject” (Lowi, 1979, p. 305). This would bring clarity to law through a regular review based on administrative experience. Finally, there should be “sunset laws” for agencies which would require “substantive reconsideration” (Lowi, 1979, p. 310) of the original principals of the law when time for renewal is at hand. This particular recommendation has been enacted since the time of Lowi’s writing.

            Lowi’s call is appealing as a return to simpler times. It is evocative of a grandparent reminiscing about a less complicated life. However, for the same reasons that we wouldn’t want to go back to washing our clothes in a basin, and heating water on a wood stove for a bath, Lowi’s ideas are not a prescription for change. They are not reflective of the technological and scientific complexity faced by policy makers today, and on the whole are unrealistic. While it is easy to feel the appeal of this romanticized notion of the past, when you imagine it applied to the present, it quickly loses its charm. Legislators have neither the expertise, time, nor budget to decide every detail of every policy, especially in the highly scientific and technical areas requiring regulation today. If we were going to wait until broad agreement existed on the smallest details of technical policy, we would never have policy. The reality is that Congress acts on the broad statutes because they do agree, and their constituencies want them to act.  Lowi is espousing very conservative politics, and hiding behind his romanticized notion of a simpler time. While these politics may be Lowi’s, they simply are not reflective of broad viewpoints in the nited States today. Most of us agree that even imperfect regulation of the environment is better than none. Furthermore, delegation to agencies does not prevent Congress from voting new statutes if they disagree with agency action.

Shapiro’s Prudential Judicial Review

            According to Shapiro, as courts mandated synoptic decision making, they required greater amounts of information to be inserted into the rule-making process. This information was available to the courts, and in their oversight, they could review the information used to make the rule and determine if in fact the “right” decision had been reached. However, Shapiro believes that as policy has become more and more technical, courts have lost the ability to review the technical information backing the rule with any amount of understanding. Because courts cannot understand the technical aspects of a decision, they must basically endorse all agency rules. In addition, according to Shapiro, “[agencies] saw that synopticism was impossible and that policies would have to be made prudentially. As a result, they concluded that the next increment of resources was better directed at disguising prudential decisions as synoptic rather than at making the decisions more synoptically” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 154). In this way, Shapiro describes the entire process of synopticism as basically a ruse aimed at convincing us agency decisions are “right” when in fact they are best guesses. As we have seen in our examination of scientific policy making, Shapiro’s claim may not be far from the truth. Synoptic decision making is virtually impossible, and all scientific knowledge is developed through consensus building and “best guesses.” 

            In Shapiro’s conclusion, he advocates for prudential decision making and a system of judicial review. He believes that agencies should be honest in the fact that they rarely know the right answer, and are making best guesses. He thinks that careful deliberation combined with a prudent decision would provide a more honest result. These decisions would then be reviewed by a judiciary who is able to understand the debate and could use its own prudent reasoning to agree or disagree with the decision. In addition, because no one would be characterizing decisions as “right”, only as best guesses at what is right, it would not be difficult to argue for a change in policy when new information came to light or a new administration came to power.

            While Shapiro’s discussion of the evolution of political theory, philosophy and trends in administrative law is very interesting, his argument regarding the superiority of “prudential judicial review” is not compelling. Shapiro states that “[i]f, at some magic point, the agency’s prudent answer is different enough from the judge’s prudent answer, the judge must conclude that the agency acted imprudently” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 163). This is an opportunity for a judge, who is not elected by the people, to insert personal opinion and values into rules. Rather than the summation of personal preferences of the electorate, it is the rule of the personal preferences of the elite few who obtain the position of judge. Shapiro discusses a similar potential when a new administration is elected, saying the agency will be able to switch policies based on administrative preference. In some ways this would incorporate the ability of the public to influence rulemaking. However, the influence of the public in this scenario comes at quite a great distance. As we have seen in our current administration with regards to stem cell research, the administration may often times not be in step with public preferences. As Shapiro concludes his book, he justifies judicial decision making by saying, “[f]or we know that judges are really no more prudent than the rest of us. So long as we let the judges know that we know that, they are unlikely to get overambitious about substituting their prudence for that of others more directly subject to democratic control” (Shapiro, 1988, p. 173). It seems a little unrealistic to expect the American public to so readily discard their expectations of participation in the policy making process and accept governance by the few, elite, appointed judges. In addition, if judges are no better than the rest of us, why should we delegate the final decisions to them?  Clearly, in this case, pluralism would be a better answer as it would be at least somewhat reflective of the public viewpoint.  Prudential judicial review is at odds with some of the underpinnings of the democratic process and would undermine the credibility of the courts by turning them into very political vehicles in the eye of the public. 

Jasanoff’s Negotiation and Boundary Work

            As Shiela Jasanoff concludes her study of scientific policy making in The Fifth Branch: science advisors as policymakers, she states that “[t]he contingent and socially constructed character of regulatory science challenges conventional technocratic assumptions about the nature of scientific knowledge and the role of experts. . . [T]he experts themselves seem at times painfully aware that what they are doing is not ‘science’ in any ordinary sense, but a hybrid activity that combines elements of scientific evidence and reasoning with large doses of social and political judgement” (Jasanoff, 1995, p. 229). Jasanoff comments that policy based on such reality often breaks down, but “it’s durability is the greater puzzle, for [this socially constructed scientific knowledge is] founded neither on testable, objective truths about nature, as presupposed by the technocratic model of legitimation, nor on the kind of broadly participatory politics envisaged by liberal democratic theory” (Jasanoff, 1995, p. 234). As Jasanoff examines what has made scientific policy successful in certain cases, she concludes that two basic elements, negotiation and boundary work, are key to obtaining policy that is legitimate in the eyes of the public and courts. 

            According to Jasanoff, even when parties begin with very disparate viewpoints, negotiation forces incremental adjustments and increased understanding between positions. When opposing parties begin to understand the issues on the other side of the debate they come to understand and appreciate the dynamic of give and take. While their position may not always be reflected, and they may not always prefer the ultimate outcome to their personal policy choice, they are less likely to challenge the final policy for having understood the process and necessity of compromise in its construction.

            Boundaries between science and policy are Jasanoff’s second key point. “If negotiation is the engine that drives the construction of regulatory science, boundary work is the casing that gives the result legitimacy” (Jasanoff, 1996, p. 236). Jasanoff tells us that, “[t]he creation of such boundaries seems crucial to the political acceptability of advice. When the boundary holds, both regulators and the public accept the experts’ designation as controlling, and the recommendations of advisory committees, whatever their actual content, are invested with unshakable authority” (Jasanoff, 1995, p. 236). 

            In addition to recommending negotiation and boundaries as the foundation of scientific policymaking, Jasanoff makes some additional points. She believes that the scientific community should be regularly engaged in the policymaking process, so that experts and agencies are able to build “enough confidence in each other’s motives and competence to negotiate productively on scientific as well as policy ifferences” (Jasanoff, 1995, p. 242). Generally, she seems to believe that it should be at the discretion of the agency when to involve experts, though she notes this sometimes has the negative effect of being used by the agency as a delay tactic in sensitive policy areas. Jasanoff also remarks on the importance of committee members as having “balancing” skills. “Agency advisers, as we have seen, must be capable of doing convincing boundary work while they are engaged in making science policy. Such a balanced performance calls for experts who not only display an informed sensitivity to the agency’s mission but also enjoy unquestioned standing among their peers” (Jasanoff, 1996, p. 234). Jasanoff comments on the difficulties surrounding the representation of diverse viewpoints on committees. She finds that though the realities of the construction of scientific knowledge might point to the idea that all potential political interests should be included, “overt interest group representation on expert advisory committees has few adherents . . . In sum, it appears that agencies must retain some discretion over the issue of political balance” (Jasanoff, 1996, p. 244). 

            As an interesting counter to Shapiro’s recommendations, Jasanoff specifically argues that “submitting science policy disputes to adversarial processes promotes an unproductive deconstruction of science and fosters the appearance of capture . . . the format least likely to bring about a durable consensus on contested technical issues is one that leads to confrontation between alternative constructions of uncertain scientific data” (Jasanoff, 1995, p. 246). Jasanoff’s ideas of negotiation and compromise with boundaries between science and policy are incongruent with the system of judicial based policy through an adversarial process suggested by Shapiro.

Sarewitz’s Call for Change

In Frontiers of Illusion: Science Technology and the Politics of Progress, author Daniel Sarewitz discusses the basic assumptions of society towards science, and the implications of these assumptions on research and development, policy, and the “progress” of society. His book is meant to be a useful resource for those working in science and policy, and he offers several suggestions regarding how to reframe our thinking regarding science in order for it to better serve the needs of society.

            Sarewitz describes five basic “myths” commonly held regarding science: 1) The Myth of Infinite Benefit, 2) The Myth of Unfettered Research, 3) The Myth of Accountability, 4) The Myth of Authoritativeness, and 5) The Myth of the Endless Frontier.

The Myth of Infinite Benefit suggests that infinite investment in R&D leads to infinite societal benefit. Sarewitz points out that while science obviously has offered many solutions to problems, it has also been the unrecognized cause of most problems. We tend to focus on the good of science and blame society for the bad.  The Myth of Unfettered Research asserts that research works best when left unconstrained and able to branch off in any direction of interest. Sarewitz argues that having “an eye toward potential applications” (1996, p. 48) would be an improvement. In addition, recognition of the societal influences on research (science is a relatively gendered and ethnically homogenous field) could also help to improve it.  The Myth of Accountability means science claims it can only be accountable to itself because society lacks the technical expertise to understand it. However, this is in conflict with the idea that science exists to benefit society – how can it do so without societal input? Furthermore, Sarewitz points out that European societies with greatest scientific literacy also have the highest levels of skepticism towards science.  The Myth of Authoritativeness is the idea that there is an expectation that science can offer definitive solutions to societies controversial problems. However, Sarewitz argues that the problems would not be controversial if there was a consensus opinion. So, “in the absence of authoritative science, we are left only with our political, imperfect selves upon which to depend” (Sarewitz, 1996, p. 96). The Myth of the Endless Frontier asserts that science likes to propagate the idea that research is done for the sake of basic knowledge, and faces endless frontiers of possible searches which it should follow wherever they lead. Application is a value added by-product of the scientific search, but not a reason for it. Sarewitz responds, saying the “cultural and large-scale momentum of science has generally been parallel to, and thus indistinguishable from, the larger-scale momentum of industrial and economic development. A policy problem lurks here:  when the consequences of science conflict with the well-being of society, or fail to meet societal expectations, the source of conflict or failure is inevitably traced to society itself, but the solution is often sought in more science: socioeconomics caused ozone depletion, and the reductionist science and technology will fix it (Sarewitz, 1996, p. 115). Sarewitz contends this obscures the true relationship between science and society and creates further difficulty in relating the two to each other.

When the current scientific paradigm, as defined by the five basic myths, interacts with global economic and political situation, Sarewitz describes science as acting as a substitute for social action. According to Sarewitz, the division between rich and poor, not only in this country, but globally will continue as long as we hold science separate from society. As science is largely funded by the richer countries, it investigates the problems facing these societies. Within the U.S., it works much the same. Instead of suggesting social cures to raise the health of the population, which would focus on minority and underprivileged populations and the improved distribution of healthcare, the U.S. chooses to provide funding towards problems of the population more defined by those working in the field, older white males. Doing so is much less controversial than taking social action.  Internationally the situation is much the same. Rich industrialized countries focus on the science and technology economically beneficial to their populations, while poor countries are often harmed rather than helped by the small percentage that is even applicable to their situation.

     Sarewitz recommends that the needs of society and science be more closely linked. He suggests an independent panel in different areas (for example climate change) which would serve as an unbiased link between the needs of the populace and the research community. This panel would give policy recommendations after consulting with science and investigating the economic and human elements of potential change, while not having the ability to proscribe solutions. Sarewitz’s solution is a values centered approach which offers a unique balance between the demands of democracy and the American public, the reality of scientific knowledge and cultural values. With some points made by Jasanoff and Sarewitz, we can begin to draw some conclusions for final learnings regarding the policy making process in highly scientific areas.

Key Learnings

            Scientific policymaking is always going to be fraught with challenges. Decisions must be made with uncertain information and subjected to scrutiny by both the public and courts. In the nited States, our adversarial judicial process has become a key forum for opposition to policy to find redress, and this has increased the need for decisions to be based on science in order to be accepted as legitimate by the public. In conflict with this need is the reality of scientific knowledge as a social construct, often incorporating the values and politics of those developing the knowledge. How can these conflicting tensions be resolved? Among the recommendations offered by the cited authors, there are some key learnings that address the challenges in the area of scientific policy making. 

            Scientific policy has been shown by several of the authors to be successful in certain instances, and less so in others. Jasanoff, in particular, has tried to pinpoint the central tenets of the success stories in order to zero in on what was key to the achievement of legitimate policy. Establishing a system for policymaking that has clear process for scientific integration would benefit all parties. A blueprint needs to be created for this integration: one that establishes boundaries and allows for negotiation. In addition, the process should recognize the reality of scientific knowledge as a social construct. This reality must be the foundation of any policy process. Science alone cannot serve to legitimate policy. Decisions based on uncertain knowledge are always going to be challengeable by those in opposition. The process of scientific policy making must both incorporate scientific knowledge and balance it with democratic demands in order to confer legitimacy. 

Due to the constructivist nature of scientific knowledge, scientific knowledge should be subordinate to the demands of democracy. If we cannot say with complete certainty that one side is more right than the other, then it seems we must recognize this reality and accept a solution that results from a participative democratic process; albeit, a process which takes scientific knowledge into great account.  Sarewitz’s independent panels are an interesting take on this idea. They ensure a public role in the process and are a basic acknowledgement of the importance of democratic participation when value based decisions are at stake. In addition, the benefits gained through negotiation of key participants are numerous. Negotiation not only lends legitimacy to the process, but also facilitates the education of all participants. The more educated participants are regarding the opposing interests, the more likely they are to understand and appreciate some of the underlying core issues which are the basis for many policy disputes. The closer participants can come to understanding the core issues which divide them, the more likely they will find areas for compromise.  This will benefit the policy area both immediately and in the future.

            However, Sarewitz’s panels may not provide the boundaries that Jasanoff tells us are critical to establishing credibility. This particular point made by Jasanoff is seconded in another article which describes scientists as less enthusiastic about participating in policy making because they feel that doing so damages their scientific credibility. In addition, the article notes that the attentive public finds a scientist’s ability to communicate effectively with the general public as very important to their credibility. As these communication skills may not be a core competency of scientists they would require development in order to ensure scientists could protect their credibility (Steel et al, 2003, p. 4). Taking the need for credibility into account, it seems that in addition to subordinating science to a democratic and participatory decision making process, any policymaking process must have clear boundaries between science and decision makers. A panel of scientists who were asked specific questions by the relevant parties, but who did not directly participate in the decision making, would find their credibility protected and the need for specialized communication skills reduced.

            A process like the one described above has already been tested by the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary stakeholder group (CINMS) as described by Lawrence Becker and Matthew Cahn in the prospectus for their coming book, Linking Science to Decision Making in Environmental Policy: Bridging the Disciplinary Gap. In the CINMS process, the agency convened a stakeholder group. This group, which included a variety of opposing interests, together chose scientists which they found acceptable and could agree on. Scientists were included on a separate panel, to which the stakeholder group put specific questions. Normative issues were confined to the stakeholder group, scientific questions to the scientists. Because the scientists had been chosen by all stakeholders, their information was lent the appropriate degree of credibility. In addition, the separation between the two groups supported this credibility and protected scientists from the appearance of participating in an overtly political process. The stakeholder group, as a participative negotiating forum lent the legitimacy to the process that democracy demands.   

            Becker and Cahn seem to have chosen a well designed process given what we know about scientific policy making and the demands placed upon policy by our unique system of democracy. The process incorporates the reality of scientific knowledge as a cultural construct, the participative demands of democracy, the compromise provided by a negotiative process, and boundaries to protect the credibility of scientists. Careful study of their observations and recommendations following the CINMS process would likely benefit agencies in facilitating and creating legitimate policy. A process like the one used by CINMS, which was able to educate participants and establish legitimate policy would pay many dividends for our society as it faces increasing demands for highly scientific or technical policy. 


Becker, Lawrence & Cahn, Matthew. (2007). Linking Science to Decision Making in Environmental Policy: Bridging the Disciplinary Gap Unpublished Prospectus. 

Hiskes, Anne L, & Hiskes, Richard P. (1986). Science, Technology, and Policy Decisions.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


Jasanoff, Shiela. (1990). The Fifth Branch: Science Advisors as Policymakers,
Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press. 

Jasanoff, Shiela. (1996).  Science at the Bar: Science and Technology in American Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Jasanoff, Shiela. (2005). Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in
Europe and the United States. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press. 

Lach, Denise, Peter List, Brent Steel and Bruce Shindler (2003). “Advocacy and Credibility of Econolgical Scientists in Resource Decisionmaking: A Regional Study” Bioscience Vol. 53 No. 2 (170-178) 

Lowi, Theodore J. (1979) The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the
United States. 2nd edition. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Powell, Mark R. (1999). Science at EPA: Information in the Regulatory Process.
Washington D.C.: Resources for the Future. 

Sabatier, Paul A. (1999) Theories of the Policy Process edited by Paul A Sabatier,
Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Sabatier, Paul A., & Jenkins-Smith. Hank C. (Eds.) (1993). Policy Change and Learning: an advocacy coalition approach.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 

Shapiro, Martin. (1988). Who Guards the Guardians?: Judicial Control of Administration, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Steel, Brent, Peter List, Denise Lach, Bruce Shindler,  2004. “The role of scientists in the environmental policy process: a case study from the American west” Environmental Science & Policy 7 (1-13).


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