Science and politics? Vive le différence!

politicians and scientists have a shared interest: good data.

The other day an alert LOTRW reader (thank you!) passed along this link to an April 26 post by Brad Plumer on Vox. In this article, entitled A Cold War theory for why scientists and the government have become so estranged, Mr. Plumer starts out this way:

These are dark times for science — or at least that’s what we keep hearing. President Trump is pushing to slash research budgets. Republicans in Congress are harassing climate scientists. Vaccine skeptics are clogging the airwaves.

 Indeed, a big reason why tens of thousands of scientists rallied in cities around the country last weekend was to counter what they see as “anti-science” attitudes taking hold in the United States — particularly in the US government. The March for Science, according to organizer Jonathan Berman, a biology postdoc at the University of Texas Health Science Center, sent “the message that we need to have decisions being made based on a thoughtful evaluation of evidence.”

 But this raises the obvious question: Was the United States ever pro-science? Was there a golden age? And if so, why were things so different then? What’s changed?

 Mr. Plumer then cites a 2008 paper by Henry Lambright, and a conversation with the author, which starts out this way:

One of the more compelling responses I’ve seen to this question can be found in this 2008 paper by W. Henry Lambright, a political scientist at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. To simplify a bit, he argues that the glory days of US science were an artifact of the Cold War and the arms race against the Soviet Union. That era has long faded, but if scientists want to bring about a new golden age, they should study that history closely. Because it contains some valuable lessons about how politics drives public attitudes toward science — and not, as is often assumed, the other way around.

When I called Lambright to talk about the politics of science in America, he started off with a simple but provocative point: There’s no inherent reason why scientists and politicians should get along. “There’s just not a natural alignment between the two communities,” he said.

 Politicians, after all, have a very different job than scientists. At least ideally, scientists seek only to uncover objective truths about the world. They follow a strict methodology, explicitly meant to filter out values, biases, or preconceptions that might color their research. Politicians, by contrast, must grapple with conflicting values and interests. Adjudicating those disputes is the whole job, and most such disputes can’t be resolved by scientific facts alone. So, not surprisingly, the two communities don’t always see eye to eye.

 During World War II, circumstances conspired to push the two camps into alignment. New science-based weapons — most famously the atomic bomb — aided the US in the war. Afterward, Vannevar Bush, the wartime science leader, convinced Congress that all those technological advances they admired so much were made possible by foundational scientific research conducted long before the war. If policymakers wanted to see more such advances, they should fund more basic research and stay out of scientists’ way.

[The shorthand? A social contract between scientists and society that goes like this: “Give us lots of money and don’t ask too many questions, and one day you’ll be glad you did[1].”]

Mr. Lambright’s argument is that so long as science contributed to a bipartisan need to win the Cold War, it prospered. But as that threat went away, no similarly universally-shared national need came along to replace it. As a result, support for science became politically contentious. Climate change was a particularly virulent example, but even when it came to another universal desire – healthcare – stem cell research proved similarly divisive. Science increasingly comes into conflict with the values of one or the other party.

What about going forward?

[Achieving a needed] public consensus won’t solely be driven by scientists,” Lambright says. “It may have to be driven by external events, or by politicians who are leading on the issue. They’ll have to connect it to issues that people care about, like national security or economic security. And it may take some time.”

Some closing comments:

To begin, the central premise of LOTRW, both the blog and the book, is that the issue that people care about is the universal, moment-by-moment human need for adequate, reliable, inexpensive, sustainable supply of food, water, and energy, while minimizing vulnerability to natural hazards and minimizing degradation of essential ecosystem services. This requires attention to both innovation and infrastructure[2].

This is not a new thought. The framers of the U.S. Global Change Research Program had this in mind in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when they framed the program as global change versus climate change. As individuals and as a community, we scientists made a mistake in straying from that distinction and settling for a focus on climate alone. The particular phrasing is neither artful nor charismatic – that needs some work – but substantively it’s in the right direction.

Second, the challenge posed by differences between the political and the scientific mindset need not be as difficult or prove as elusive as messrs Lambright and Plumer intimate. It’s a challenge that billions of us solve every day without breathing hard – in marriage[3]. Marriage contains a common goal – not national security, but another end we desire equally strongly, namely the desire to be in relationship – that neither partner can achieve alone. As a general rule, both partners want and work toward, generally successfully, despite major dissimilarities in approach and thought. We have an expression for it:

Vive le différence!


[1] An LOTRW-based framing of the late 20th-century social contract between scientists and society; you can find this here and here.

[2] Every word in this passage matters.

[3] Apologies: for brevity, this term is used here as a shorthand to apply to all close, enduring partnerships and relationships.

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