Science? More relevant every day. And also more political.

The Founding Fathers found science fascinating. Franklin was one of the foremost scientists of his day, renowned worldwide. In 1743, while the Americas were still the colonies, he and others founded the American Philosophical Society, “held at Philadelphia for the promotion of useful knowledge.” Jefferson was an enthusiastic student of nature. Even Washington, who considered himself foremost a farmer, was interested as well (visit Mount Vernon and you’ll find in his study surveying instruments, a sawfish tooth, a set of weights, a guide to milling, and a specimen of fan coral).

That said, at the time they and others were writing the documents that established the United States, other more pressing matters (primarily political power and its apportionment: among the three branches of federal government, between the federal government and the states, and between governments and individuals) commanded everyone’s attention. The distribution of wealth – especially with respect to the rights of debtors (southern farmers) and creditors (northern bankers) – provided an important subtext. Sound familiar? These same issues continue to play out every day.

By contrast, science merited only the briefest mention. In fact, in the Constitution, one of the most important public policy documents of all time, we really find only a single passage (Article I, Section 8, the Powers of Congress): “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

That passing reference lies buried in a lengthy enumeration of Congressional powers, mostly addressing money matters and military concerns. Science was considered important to the extent it was useful. As the Founders saw it, protecting intellectual property was the single most powerful policy tool for fostering innovation and applying useful knowledge. Thus patents were, and continue to be, a focus of science policy.[1]

Speaking of useful science, what about its utility to the policy process? The Constitution makes only one reference to the use of scientific data (not by name) in support of policy. (We physical scientists need to take note: the data in question are social data!) You can find that in Article I, Section 2, which directs that members of the House of Representatives shall be apportioned on the basis of state population. The Bureau of the Census was established early on in part to help Congress with this task.

Today, the reality is rather different.

Recall that most of the history of the United States has occurred during a very short recent time span in which the pace of innovation and social change has accelerated enormously. Fast forward to 1950, the year Congress established the National Science Foundation, in order “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” There’s that phrase again: “to promote the progress of science.” The 20th-century legislators were careful to link their new agency to the earlier Constitutional mandate.[2] And although we think of the late 20th century as a period of basic science, or science for its own sake, the legislative language clearly shows interest in practical benefit.

By this time science had become central to human affairs, and visibly so, especially during the Second World War. Although America and the Allies had won the war in large part because of fundamental geopolitical realities, it was clear to politicians that science had helped shape the outcome. In the actual event, the invention of the atomic bomb, radar, and penicillin, had greatly reduced Allied losses; but this advantage was a close call. At the outset of the war, Germany had enjoyed a clear superiority in relevant science and technology across the board. German scientists had also been working on the bomb, and at the end of the war were launching missiles and building jet aircraft. Politicians decided that science and technology would be vital to American security in the future. They were unwilling to risk US fortunes on the ups and downs of privately-funded science. Government support would be needed.

In fact, post-World War II ushered in such a radically different approach to science and science policy that it’s reasonable to consider the establishment of NSF as akin to the Big Bang, and pick up the history starting from that point.[3]

One fascinating aspect of today’s science policy is that it consists of those two distinct bits we find in the Constitution, but now pervasive, threaded through every aspect of the national agenda:

Policy for science: this is the piece familiar from other aspects of policy, say agricultural policy, or energy policy, or health care policy. It addresses questions such as what science should government fund? With what priority? At what dollar level? Should the funding be in-house, or extramural, or a blend of both? How should the government balance conduct of basic and applied research? Where to put the boundary separating government-supported research and for-profit R&D? What needs to be done to make science policy consistent with public policy more generally? And so on.

Note the postwar policy debate, culminating in the establishment of NSF, still holds sway today: government should primarily fund basic research (an exception being research that so-called mission agencies need to do their work). Government should not attempt to pre-determine winners and losers but rather fund research judged to be superior on the basis of peer-reviewed proposals.

Science for policy: In the policy arena, this piece is rather unusual. It’s unique to science. For example, you don’t hear the phrase “farm subsidies for policy,” or “health care for policy,” do you? But science plays into judgments about farm subsidies, and health care. In fact, today, science increasingly influences just about every aspect of policy. Science for policy addresses questions like, “What will be the influence of replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy? What are the levels of toxins and pharmaceuticals in our freshwater drinking supplies? What are the relationships between doses of such substances and harmful effects on humans, animals, and plants? What are the economics of farm subsidies at home relative to US exports of grains worldwide?” And so on.

This second dimension – not really anticipated by the Founding Fathers, prescient though they were – has changed science policy. One big change: support for science, if it ever was non-partisan, certainly is no longer. As politicians and business leaders have become more aware of the role played by natural and social science in policy formulation, they’ve gotten more alert and aggressive about intervening at earlier stages in the policy process. They want to improve the odds that decisions will go their way. Today, as policy formulation in general has become more contentious, science policy has been especially politicized, as science has weighed in on environmental issues, health care, transportation, energy, and just about every aspect of American life.

Science non-partisan? In a narrow sense, as regards the process – hypothesis formulation, test by experiment or observation – this statement still rings true. But when it comes to what hypotheses are formulated, and which are tested –we’ve entered the political arena.

And we are strangers in this strange land.

[1]Abraham Lincoln, the only president ever awarded a patent, famously said that “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” He also was reputed to have named the introduction of patent laws as one of the three most important developments in the history of the world, along with the [European] discovery of America and the perfection of printing. 

[2] Considering the importance many people today attach to the Constitution [if the framers included a thought, we should adhere to it; if they failed to mention an issue, perhaps we should ignore it today as well, rather than chance somehow losing our way], it’s perhaps a good thing this reference to science, however cursory, was included!

[3] Homer Neal, Tobin Smith, and Jennifer McCormick essentially do that in their comprehensive science policy text, Beyond Sputnik: U.S. science policy in the 21st century. An important read. But if you’re a scientist and a history buff, and want to know about the origins of science policy in this country, you should also find yourself a copy of Science in the Federal Government: a history of policies and activities to 1940, by A. Hunter Dupree. [The nascent National Science Foundation provided funding for the book.] While a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I came across a copy in a used book store. My life hasn’t been the same since.

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One Response to Science? More relevant every day. And also more political.

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