Stepping back from the cliff… completing the thought.


“There is as yet no liberty if the power of judging be not separated from legislative power and the executrix” – Montesquieu

Picking up from the previous LOTRW post.) At the time our Founding Fathers framed the U.S. Constitution, in 1787, science had yet to demonstrate its potential to shape history and determine the fortune of nations. The Constitution makes brief reference to the promotion of the useful arts and the establishment of a patent system, and it calls for the collection of demographic data – a decennial Census, in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives among the respective states. Otherwise science – and data – and their relevance to policy and government receive little or no mention.

The Framers, however, had read their Montesquieu and Locke and the other thinkers of that era. At the Constitutional Convention they fixed attention on separation of powers in three branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judiciary. They ordained that Congress would write and enact laws, levy taxes, hold the sole power to declare war, and so on. They gave to the President authority to execute the laws, appoint judges and department heads, etc. They assigned to the judiciary the right to decide cases and controversies. The Framers also built in a complex web of checks and balances – veto powers, and the power to override vetoes; advise and consent on certain appointments; impeachment powers; the power to decide the Constitutionality of laws; and more – to ensure that power wouldn’t fall into the hands of any one of these branches at the expense of another. The system has performed impressively for more than two centuries, requiring only minimal tweaks and adjustments along the way.

Many of those tweaks and adjustments have accommodated the rise of science.

The rise of science has proved so consequential that we might consider a hypothetical – that in some parallel universe the U.S. Constitution were being formulated today instead of 200 years ago. Given the way science and technology currently thread throughout every aspect of American life, it might not be far-fetched for framers in that parallel universe to see a fourth power at work in governments – the use of information based on data and on scientific understanding to set agendas, priorities, shape employment and education, as well as foreign policy. The framers might also be concerned by conflicts of interest implicit in the development of such knowledge and understanding vs. the formulation of policies based on that knowledge. They might have then set up authority and means for developing the data and knowledge deemed foundational for legislation, execution of the laws, and case judgments in a separate, fourth branch of government, and put in place additional checks and balances needed to render the new four-branch system stable and functional.

A fourth branch of government devoted to science? Checks and balances designed to ensure that science and scientists would be free of political interference? No one is seriously proposing such a step. In the abstract the idea might seem at first to hold a certain logic, but it’s hard to imagine that it would work in practice. Current realities facing the judicial branch show the risks. Budgets for the judiciary and judicial appointments are supposed to be protected from Congressional interference. But in fact, even as judicial caseloads (which are beyond the judiciary’s control) have increased nationwide, budgets have remained flat. The judiciary is constantly asked to do more with less. Legislators sometimes see judges as overstepping their bounds – making the laws versus interpreting them – and show their frustrations by delaying approval of judicial appointments, etc. The judiciary is frequently accused of being out of touch and unresponsive to the needs of the American people. There’s every reason to believe that these problems and controversies would plague science should it constitute a separate, fourth branch of government. The cost of the judiciary to the federal budget is something like $7.5B/year. Budgets for R&D across the federal agencies are far higher. It’s easy to imagine that the annual sums spent on science and their allocation towards various needs would be in constant dispute.

What is worth reflection, however, is the thought that in such an alternate universe, the status of scientists in society might be something akin to that of judges. Were that the case, perhaps scientists would evolve or develop a similar culture and set of traditions.

One prominent feature of the judicial culture is that sitting federal judges seem to do relatively little blogging or public speaking or political advocacy when off the job. They’ve learned the hard way over two centuries that there’s minimal joy in these activities. Building up a long trail of commentary on various issues, however important, or however pertinent their specialized expertise, confounds their ability to remain unbiased (or maintain an appearance of fairness) in future cases on which they may be asked to rule. Instead, judges have learned to be relatively content to let their actual rulings speak for themselves[1]. They also tend to construct their rulings narrowly, case by case. Only rarely do they rule in ways that have sweeping, dramatic impact.

Significantly, we don’t hear judges complaining that this in any way diminishes their rights and roles as ordinary citizens.

Scientists might do well to emulate this. And in the process, we might find this self-discipline rather liberating instead of confining. We might find that this would increase our ability to contribute effectively to the political process, and to work with all legislators and members of the executive branch, whatever their political persuasions or self-interests. By being as disciplined in our approach to the political process as we are to our science, we might find the policy implications of our work treated with more respect from all sides.

Your thoughts?


[1]In much the same way as the American Meteorological Society attempts to couch its communications in terms of Council-approved AMS statements, developed over many months with input and review from the full membership.

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