Science based policy had a rough time of it for the last eight years. More than any prior administration, Democratic or Republican, the Bush Administration censored, suppressed, distorted and ignored science. Government scientists were harassed and retaliated against and scientific research and even information gathering were de-funded.
Censorship of science violates the values embodied in the First Amendment and the spirit of scientific inquiry. By disrupting the free flow of information in the scientific arena, the government endangered the “marketplace of ideas” – threatening our constitutional rights to freedom of speech, thought, and inquiry – and undermines the scientific data and expertise that are the basis of wise policy-making. If history is a guide, suppression of scientific inquiry poses grave risk of harm to the public.
Science should inform politics, not the reverse. Many people, not just scientists and not only in this country were, therefore, greatly heartened by President Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place.” For an example, see this article in Nature.
In a recent Opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press, Susanne B. Haga, Ph.D., a senior policy analyst in the Institute for Genomics Science & Policy at Duke University, noted that from medicine and health care to food safety, energy and the environment, science will play a key role in many of the policies our legislators will be proposing and debating and that with the exception of the small group of doctors and scientists, most members of Congress lack the background to understand the process of science and the subtle nuances that justify investments in science and engineering or changes in priorities. She suggests that in addition to the usual orientation sessions given to new members of Congress, they should be given “a crash course in science to equip them with a fundamental understanding of how research is conducted and the strengths and weaknesses inherent in any scientific dataset.” I would add current Members of Congress to this proposal.
But is even that much enough? Hippocrates said “There are, in fact, two things, science and opinion, the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.” And we live in a very scientifically ignorant country. The most recent available data from the National Assessment of Education shows that by the 12th grade U.S. students are scoring generally near the bottom of all industrial countries in math and science. In a recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe, Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, cited similar statistics as a “wake-up call for science education.”
In August USA Today asked the very timely question of whether or not Americans are science-savvy enough to make informed decisions. The evidence suggests that many of them are not. For example, in a 2008 Gallup poll, only 14% of Americans agreed that “man evolved over millions of years.” This is actually up from 9% in 1982. And a recent Harris poll found that more Americans believe in God, the devil, hell, angels, and miracles, than believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution and sizable minorities believe in ghosts, UFOs and astrology.
An informed and educated electorate must understand and convey to their elected representatives, their reasonably held views on the important policy issues of the day. There must be protection against the manipulation and suppression of vital information. This is important for matters ranging from war and peace all the way to government scandals and, of course for matters pertaining to science. There are a growing number of policy issues – climate change, the environment, health are but three instances– that are dependent for their resolution upon a public understanding of the basic science concerning these matters.
Science should inform politics, not the reverse. As members of Congress and other officials debate the implications of various policies involving science, there is an ever greater need for the public to have all the information available and to be able to understand and evaluate that knowledge in order to instruct their servants, the government. Non-security related information and knowledge held by the government must be a starting point for the citizenry to perform its function as “ultimate sovereign.”