Drawing the Line Between Science and Politics?

Congressional office

Scientific decisions take place outside the lab as often as they do inside—in congressional offices and other political venues. Image courtesy of istockphoto.

Wiebe E. Bijker, Roland Bal, and Ruud Hendriks. The Paradox of Scientific Authority: The Role of Scientific Advice in Democracies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. viii + 223 pp. $32.

Mark B. Brown. Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. xvi + 354 pp. $56 cloth, $28 paper.

Ann Campbell Keller. Science in Environmental Policy: The Politics of Objective Advice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. xi + 278 pp. $52 cloth, $26 paper.

In what ways should scientists be involved in making public-policy decisions? The question is a difficult one for technologically advanced democratic societies. If scientists do not offer their expert knowledge to the policy process, we risk making ill-informed decisions on technically complex issues. But if scientists play too large a role in defining the issues and their solutions, we risk replacing democratic governance with technocratic control.

The twin specters of uninformed policy and technocracy animate three recent works on science and public policy. In The Paradox of Scientific Authority, Wiebe Bijker, Roland Bal, and Ruud Hendriks ask, “How can scientific advice be effective and influential in an age in which the status of science and/or scientists seems to be as low as it ever has been” (p. 1). Although their study of the Gezondheidsraad, the Health Council of the Netherlands, focuses on the strategies used by scientific advisory panels to ensure that expert knowledge gets incorporated into policy processes, the authors also grapple with the threat of technocracy. They conclude the book with a taxonomy of policy problems that distinguishes those dependent on scientists’ contributions from those demanding broader public engagement.

Ann Keller is similarly concerned with how scientists become effective in policy making in Science in Environmental Policy. Focused on U.S. debates over acid rain and climate change, her study analyzes scientists’ participation in three distinct phases of policy making—agenda setting, legislation, and implementation. For Keller technocracy appears particularly threatening in the agenda-setting phase. She shows that during this phase scientists’ prescriptions about what should be done—especially their suggestions about questions on what future research is needed—are likely to become part of laws without being subjected to significant democratic debate. For example, scientists’ efforts to put acid rain on the legislative agenda resulted in the creation of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, an institution that through its research continued to shape acid-rain policy in the later phases of policy making.

Finally, Mark Brown’s Science in Democracy takes a theoretical approach to the problem of creating scientifically informed, yet democratic, policy. Drawing on political theorists ranging from Machiavelli to John Dewey, Brown suggests that expanding our notions of and institutions for democratic representation to give scientists an important role in policy making still leaves room for substantive contributions by diverse groups of nonscientists.

Boundaries—specifically the boundaries between science and politics—are a central theme in each of these studies. One common answer to the dilemma of incorporating science into democratic policy processes is to separate science and politics. Given a firm boundary between the factual, objective world of science and the value-laden space of political decision making, scientific facts can serve as neutral information to guide public policy—or so the logic goes. But all three books refute this model, denying the possibility of a clean separation between science and politics. Following decades of research in science and technology studies, the authors argue that science necessarily incorporates political values and that negotiation over what science is necessary to inform policy takes place in tandem with negotiation over policy solutions themselves.