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.

While these studies reject the existence of a clear boundary between science and politics, they acknowledge the importance of the ideaof such a boundary. In fact, each of the analyses focuses in one way or another on the efforts by various political actors to build and manage boundaries. Science in Democracy, for example, discusses the political theories of Machiavelli, Rousseau, and early natural philosophers, including Galileo and Robert Boyle, showing how the boundary between science and politics that exists in contemporary approaches to policy making was built up over centuries of political thought. The separation of the two, for Brown, is at the heart of our current, seemingly intractable tension between expert advice and democracy. To reconcile the tension Brown looks for ways to dissolve the boundary. In the second half of the book he shows how the theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Dewey, and Bruno Latour recombine science and politics; for example, Latour argues that the way that scientists represent or speak for the natural world can be seen as parallel to the way that certain people speak for other people or groups when they represent them in political contexts. Brown draws on these theories to suggest that science and politics could be brought together, instead of held apart, in democratic institutions that foster discussion of important policy issues.

In contrast, The Paradox of Scientific Authority and Science in Environmental Policy both see the (imagined) boundaries between science and politics as instrumental to scientists’ attempts to be influential in the policy process. Keller describes how in the implementation phase of policy making government scientists use a variety of strategies to set their work apart from political negotiations. They legitimate it, for example, by emphasizing its ties to academic science. Bijker, Bal, and Hendriks, too, show how the authority of the scientific advisory panels depends on steps taken by the Gezondheidsraad both to insulate the panels from political controversy and to shield disagreements among scientists from public view.

Yet the careful empirical work of the two books also demonstrates the limits of the science-politics boundary’s usefulness in practice. Comparing the ways that scientists invoke the boundary across the three phases of policy making, Keller concludes that maintaining a rhetorical distinction between science and politics becomes more important as scientists draw nearer to decision-making power. That is, scientists participating in the implementation phase, where decisions create political winners and losers, draw sharp boundaries between science and politics; however, in the earlier phases of agenda setting and legislation, where consequences are less dramatic, the distinction is not nearly as important. In fact, Keller’s analysis suggests that scientists’ success in influencing the agenda-setting phase of policy making depends on their ability to link scientific findings to political arguments about what can and should be done about them. But even in the later phases scientists’ influence is not dependent only on their ability to construct a boundary between their work and political negotiations. Bijker, Bal, and Hendriks’s analysis describes how scientific advisory panels reach across the science-politics boundary—interpreting policy makers’ requests, preparing policy audiences for their reports, and re-presenting their findings after the fact—in order to ensure that their advice is used, and used properly, by decision makers.

The science-politics boundary is invoked in the conclusions that the authors draw from their studies. Keller shies from making any statements about how scientists ought to be involved in policy processes—reinstating the distinction between empirical analysis and political claims with respect to her own research. Bijker, Bal, and Hendriks, however, make recommendations for incorporating the advice of scientists into policy. They divide policy problems into four types, characterized by the nature of the risks they involve. “Simple” risk situations, they argue, can be largely left to the experts, while at the other end of the spectrum “ambiguous” risk situations demand that scientific advice be balanced by the participation of interest groups and the general public. Their recommendations thus depend on being able to assess the relative proportions of “scientific” and “political” that make up an issue. Only Brown’s book begins to transcend the science-politics boundary that all three critique. His reading of political theory forms the basis for envisioning forums for democratic deliberation, such as bioethics councils, consensus conferences, and other “mini-publics” that combine moral with scientific perspectives in order to make policies more scientific by making science more productively political.

Gwen Ottinger is a program researcher in the Environmental History and Policy Program at CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy.