Rational Science Policy

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." So said Steven Jay Gould. He was talking about schools, universities, and assorted other educational settings. But alas, ignorance is also in evidence when public policy is considered around scientific matters.

The problem boils down to choice. How do we choose between investing in high energy physics or genome research? Which has the most importance to the public good?

A possible approach dubbed "public values mapping" is described in a recent paper by two collaborators at Arizona State and the University of Georgia. PVM is variously described but essentially is activity that adds the most good to the most people. This may or may not derive from the most common reasoning for public investment in science – that it drives technological excellence and economic growth. These markers are fairly easy to measure by counting peer reviewed publications, Nobel Prizes, GDP, or trade balances. Equally valid measures of scientific import could be better health, a cleaner environment, or a safer world, but these are harder to evaluate with agreeable precision.

The paper outlines the sometimes hoary criteria for and assumptions about how to assess "public values." These are then applied in a series of papers in the same issue of the journal on the often fraught issues of green chemistry, climate science, technology transfer policy, and nanotechnology-based cancer treatments.

Sorry to say the results aren't definitive. There is no geographically precise roadmap to sound social policy decision making. The analyses are dense, complex, and not readily reduced to convenient sound bites (or blog posts). But the paper is a start, and its reasoned approach to settling public policy is especially welcome in an era where the day is often carried by whoever shouts the loudest.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Drawing the Line Between Science and Politics? [Chemical Heritage]


Posted In: Policy

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