Who should decide science policy?

So for the very first real debate, I wanted to ask who should make the decisions about science policy. There seem to be two different considerations: who should make the decision (elected official, science community, the public, etc.), and on what level should that individual/ group have authority to do so (local, state, federal, international)? And what basis should the decisions be made on (economics, scientific facts, public opinion, etc)? Keep in mind that none of these things have to be exclusive of each other. Perhaps we need a mix of decision makers who decide based on varied points. But who should have the ultimate authority? If the public and the science community offer advice to a policy maker, what is his responsibility? A lot of this goes into political philosophy, so it’s a difficult topic to cover in one blog post. But I’ve tried to set up each who, what level, why based on the pros and cons of have them in the decision making process. This way each can be analyzed individually and we make thing how to include them in the whole of decision making.

One thing that is lacking in current research is the debates on this, so unlike what I would like to do I’ll be presenting my own thoughts.


Who do we trust to make policy decisions? Is science policy any different than any other policy? Do we trust the same people who make all of our other legislative decisions to make these decisions?

Elected officials: This group should know the most about policy making, and are in positions of elected authority. We as a people have already given our consent for them to represent us by electing them to those positions. Elected officials also often have access to a diverse amount of information and opinions, including how a science policy decision has merit scientifically as well as its effects, such as economical effects. Coming from the science community, I recognize there is a bias against trusting politicians our precious and beloved science. Probably a sentiment shared among more than just that community is that politicians sometimes can’t be trusted to make decisions honestly without personal ambitious motivations. However, if this does occur it isn’t limited to science policy, so as scientists, if we’re okay with elected officials deciding other matters for us, perhaps we shouldn’t be so protective of just science matters.

Elected officials will often rely on experts within fields to offer information and advice on matters the elected official has influence over. So it’s not as if elected officials are necessarily uninformed when it comes to deciding science policy. Congress, for example, has several committees and agencies for researching policy interests, including science.

Science community: This group should know the most about the science.We scientists like to think we’re not as easily swayed by public opinion or by lobbyists as an elected official might be. We’re here to represent the science. However, I’ve noticed the trend in scientists to trust science inherently, perhaps when we shouldn’t. Also, the general science community may not consider interests, such as the economics, as important as the science when making decisions. This would especially come into play when deciding how to budget funds for research. Scientists probably would allocate quite a bit more in funding toward research than is currently there, but may not understand the consequences of doing so.

The people: So as voting citizens, could we make science policy decisions by voting? Again, there is a general distrust among scientists with public opinion. We see Facebook posts with millions of notes about how chemicals in food kill people, and we see that people believe that. So it’s in our minds that the general public doesn’t trust or understand science. However, we have to keep in our minds that it is only the loudest, most constant voice we hear. I think we should try to trust our fellow people more. And if we do find some fallacies, do our best to correct them.

But again, science policy may not need to be treated differently than other policy. So if we the people vote to elect representatives to make these decisions for us, why would we the people need to vote on science policy? And would these decisions only be about regulations, or would the people have to take the time to constantly vote on what research projects get funding?

What level:

Local: Each local population (such as a town or county) gets to decide what science policies their area will have. So if a decision may affect some areas in positive ways and others in negative ways, each area can decide what’s best for them. This wouldn’t works so well with public funding of science, though. My own institution is a public research university set in a rural area. If our local government had control on how to fund us, they might also be responsible for finding those funds. Our area simply does not have the financial resources to do so. We rely on federal funding that can be shared over all economically diverse areas throughout the US. Also, this could be bad for collaboration. If a type of research is banned in one county but not in another, then it could be illegal for collaborators one town over from each other to share research (which is typically a good thing).

State: A little larger, maybe more diverse than local, but still smaller and closer to the individual citizen than federal government. State governments may be able to more fairly distribute research funds, but wouldn’t be able to make science policy decisions as personal to unique areas. Again, could have the issue of negatively affecting collaborations.

Federal: The federal government would make decisions that would affect everyone. The decisions may not be tailor made to each area, but they should still keep everyone’s interest in mind by their elected representatives. This could allow for some areas to be negatively affected by a decision that may be best for the nation as a whole. Federal funding of research could most fairly distribute research funds because it wouldn’t depend on what local/state area a project is set at, but instead could allocate funds to worthy projects set in financially poor areas/ states that otherwise wouldn’t be able to be funded.

International: This would be like the UN deciding on science policy. The UN has a few countries that always are allowed to vote on decisions, and then other countries rotate the remaining decision making seats. So, like federal government, some areas could be poorly served by a decision that benefits others. Only here there  isn’t equal representation.

Based on what?

Public opinion: So no matter who makes the decision, no matter at what level, the public opinion carries the decision. Again, that loudest voice thing may have negative effects here. If a decision maker thinks that most of the public wants a certain decision made based of internet data or polls, the loudest voices will be heard. Most people are fairly unaggressive and relatively quiet about things they have no strong passions for, but they may still have opinions. So how would public opinion be determined? We typically like to vote to show public opinion on who our elected officials should be, so why not just then vote on every issue?

Political opinion: This would be how one policy decision would affect other policy decisions and policy making. Something that may be good for science could be bad policy. And vice versa.

Scientific opinion: So if something is scientifically sound, and the people still don’t trust it, should it be forced on them?

Obviously no one type of person at just one level can make such decisions and make them soundly. We need a variety of people, at a variety of levels, basing the decisions on a variety of factors. Perhaps some types of decisions, such as research funding, are better made at one level rather than all levels. Other decisions may be need to decided on different levels. Currently the US has a very complex mix of players in decision making. Typically legislators will make the ultimate decisions about regulations and funding budgets, having sought advice from experts. Research funding allocations are made by specific groups with scientific and financial experts, such as NSF. A great description of the players in science policy comes from Beyond Sputnik, Homer Neal, Tobin Smith, and Jennifer McCormick, and published by the University of Michigan Press. What this book relays is that the current system is incredibly complex, which has its pros and cons.  I finish by asking if we are happy with the current decision making, and do we trust it? Or do we think a different mix of players and factors should be involved?


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