Science and Politics
Are politicians acknowledging the research?
Many of the major challenges facing our nation today revolve around science. To achieve energy independence, we must develop new or existing domestic energy sources. It will take great technological advances and an educated workforce to compete in a global economy.
It appears voters may have picked up on the importance of science, with a recent JZ Analytics poll claiming that 85 percent of Americans agree that “presidential candidates should participate in a debate to discuss key science-based challenges.” While the poll was conducted online and may not be the best representation of the American public, this percentage remained as high as 87 percent for Catholics and 83 percent for Protestants, showing significant support from those perhaps viewed as least likely to “believe” in science.
However, there is certainly evidence that politicians have denied science its rightful role in policy. Rick Santorum was one of many Republican presidential candidates to openly advocate intelligent design and once proposed an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act that would promote its teaching. Even the Obama administration, widely viewed as pro-science, has received criticism for overruling an FDA decision to increase accessibility of the morning-after pill.
However, CMC Professor of American Politics John Pitney says, “candidates actually have taken very strong stances in favor of scientific research,” citing Newt Gingrich’s focus on neuroscience and Mitt Romney’s discussion of scientific research in his book No Apology: Believe in America.
As to why some issues receive less coverage than others, Pitney claims that both parties “will focus on the scientific issues that tend to favor their side and downplay the issues where the science may point in the other direction.”
Paul Steinberg, HMC Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Policy, thinks that politicians have neglected science, saying that the current state of science in policy “is a lot worse than it used to be” and that “there’s a lack of understanding of the scientific process.”
In fact, he placed some of the blame on Gingrich. During Gingrich’s time as Speaker of the House, Steinberg says, “The Republicans came in and dismantled what was the scientific assessment arm of Congress. [It] routinely cranked out analytic reports, articulated the state-of-the-art in a variety of scientifically intensive policy-relevant areas and they killed it.”
What Steinberg is referring to was the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), created in 1972, yet de-funded in 1995 when Republicans gained a majority in the House. The OTA was governed by a bipartisan twelve member board of House and Senate members and advised Congress on issues ranging from global warming to ballistic missile defense systems. Its rebirth has been advocated by recent presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Ralph Nader, yet the idea has gained little traction.
Since then, and perhaps earlier, Americans have shown some signs of doubting the scientific community. American Sociological Review recently published a study claiming that confidence in the scientific community, as measured by the General Social Survey, has declined from 1974 to 2010. Moreover, it claims that this decline is mostly attributable to conservatives, though this explanation is independent of political party.
On the topic of political divide on science, Pitney says, “you’ve had scientific advances and science policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations.” He also cautions that “you have to be careful about making sweeping statements about being pro-science or anti-science; a lot of this will depend on the individual issue.”
Steinberg, on the other hand, does place some blame for the declining role of science on right-wing “anti-intellectualism,” which he attributes to historical anti-elitist sentiment in the United States. “That sort of populism plays out on the left in the Occupy Wall Street protests and so forth. On the right, it plays out in a sort of anti-intellectualism,” which Steinberg says is how politicians get away with neglecting science.
Whatever the role of science is today, it seems we can all agree on one thing: science should be an important factor in political decision-making whenever possible. As Steinberg says, “politicians have no excuse for not understanding [the scientific process] because they can convene scientists from their respective districts.” How we interpret the science – when a zygote becomes a human or what exactly we should do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – should be left to policy makers. But we cannot ignore the facts and live in an illusion defined by politics.