Can Science Policy Advice Be Disinterested?

Review of

The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 198 pp.

The Honest Broker by Roger A. Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, has many strengths, including lucidity, refreshing common sense, and a good instinct for the relevant point in a complex discussion. The author is an experienced observer, and on occasion rises to the level of a wise and reflective commentator on the complex scene of science affairs, maybe even qualifying as the honest broker he admires and whose putative virtues he extols in the volume. The book also has irritating and serious flaws that detract from his stated goal of presenting a way of thinking more clearly about how the scientist “relates to the decision-making process.” Pielke takes some stylistic risks in attempting to present his argument in a lively and creative way. Much of the book has the air of a PowerPoint presentation, complete with snappy short (and misleading) definitions; bullets at the start of chapters; plenty of charts (mostly either trivial or incomprehensible); and short wrap-ups, recaps, and conclusions that are unsatisfying. I am reminded of Edward Tufte’s critique of how PowerPoint presentations invariably “dumb down” any discussion of a serious issue.

A key assumption of the book is that what is really wrong with science advising is that scientists lack a clear view of their choices and of what they are doing. Pielke seems to believe that once scientists get this straight, the rest of what needs to happen in the advising process will fall into place. I wish it were that simple.

Whether the scientists do or do not have it right is a small part of the overall problem, for in truth the scientists are bit players in this whole drama. What congressional staffers, civil servants, presidential advisers, journalists, media talking heads, and politicians at all levels do or think is far more significant. Pielke worries that scientists who are not savvy about their role are likely to be used by these other players as “stealth issue advocates.” He shouldn’t fret about this; he should accept it. Politicians and powerful interests use everybody and anybody to advance their causes. Whether scientists think they are honest brokers or issue advocates will matter little to the policymakers, who assume that everyone has an interest and are untroubled by that fact.

Pielke assumes that the scientists’ role is growing in importance as more and more issues are at least partly or highly technical in their content. This is a common conceit among scientists, but it does not hold up under careful scrutiny. Empirically speaking, independent scientists have become less important in recent years in Congress and in the Executive Branch, as more “scientific middlemen” have emerged to interpret scientific findings to policymakers. Many of these have had some technical education and are familiar in varying degrees with developments within science. In the years immediately after World War II, scientists from the universities, industry, and the national labs were almost alone as the dispensers of technical advice and thus found themselves in great demand as government advisers. The whole business of science advice was an elite affair, with a relatively small number of scientists from select private universities in the Northeast and a few companies in California as the major players. That small group of individuals did have influence. Today, there is a cacophony of voices in a much more pluralist, open, and disorderly policy process, and the technical staff capacities within the government have grown in numbers and sophistication. The voice of the individual scientist is lost in the din.

Models of advice

Pielke identifies four major models of science advising—the pure scientist who prefers not to offer advice, the science arbiter who is objective but willfully innocent of policy realities, the science advocate, and the honest broker (his favorite) who is objective but responsive to the practical realities of policymaking—and tries to point out where each is appropriate. He criticizes the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for “stealth issue advocacy”; that is, for sneaking into its analysis assumptions that point to policy recommendations, while pretending to offer only purely scientific observations. Fair enough. One should recognize when one is advocating and do so in a straightforward fashion. One way to guard against stealth issue advocacy, he suggests later, is to have a broadly based committee so that different viewpoints are necessarily represented. But isn’t this exactly what the IPCC is? In Pielke’s defense, it must be said that he does not oversimplify issues such as climate change; fair-minded and cautious, he tries to give the various sides of an issue without caricaturing any of the views.

More generally, however, Pielke’s analytical categories begin to blur rather than enhance clarity, and I believe that they do not take us very far. Does the IPCC try to act as science adviser or honest broker but then slip by mistake into stealth issue advocacy, or are all three roles involved in various aspects of its work? How, in short, would we apply the categories to an actual situation? Pielke leaves no doubt that the honest broker is the rarer bird and the sort of scientist who is most useful, but it is not clear that this ideal can exist in the real world. How then should scientists behave?

Pielke says that scientists should not consider themselves “above the fray,” but the honest broker seems to want to do just that. The honest broker is a kind of Diogenes wandering around with his lantern and looking for an honest man. The honest broker is an individual with no institutional self-interest or agenda or set of predisposing values—in short, a unicorn. Or at least no animal that has ever been sighted inside the Beltway.

The downside of Pielke’s even-handedness is that at times he seems to argue around in circles. For example, he affirms the importance of and the primacy of democracy (of a certain kind where interest groups are held in check). Then he backtracks, fearing that politics (and those naughty politicians) will not adopt the correct policies, will plunge the nation into gridlock, and will “politicize” science. So science has to ride to the rescue, but in doing so, to be careful not to “scientize” politics or to allow itself to be “politicized.” And how are we to tell good policy from bad policy? Well, for one thing “disputes over values [have] to be mapped onto debates over science.” In general, “good decisions are those that most reliably lead to desired outcomes.” Committees of distinguished scientists from different fields will normally give one balanced judgments, except when they don’t. The efforts to define good outcomes and decisions are often tautological. Further, whatever one means by “mapping” values onto science, the scientific aspects of decisions on climate policy or questions of war and peace are only some of the factors that must be weighed, and are not always the most significant ones.

So Pielke eventually works his way back to our disorderly democracy and decisionmaking processes, with his various constructs strewn along the path like roadkill. Why, one wonders, does he object so strongly to adversarial processes? The adversarial style is so firmly lodged in our legal and political system that we have to live with it. He acknowledges that there is nothing wrong with advocacy per se. Scientists are citizens and have the right to be advocates. But he is inherently suspicious of advocacy, especially by his scientific colleagues who do not seem to realize they are advocating or else do not care that they are lining up on certain sides of an issue. The reason lies in his assessment that this kind of behavior will tend to “politicize” science. If “science [is seen] mainly as a servant of interest group politics,” then “political battles are played out in the language of science, resulting in policy gridlock and the diminishment of science as a source for policymaking.” Pielke implies that the main rationale for society’s support of science is that scientists provide policy advice. But this is not so, and we should be grateful for that. The future of science would be parlous indeed if this were true. Society supports science because a civilized society values the arts, the sciences, learning in general, museums, archives, and all the other attributes of high culture. Society expects that useful findings will emerge from scientists’ indulging their curiosity (and evidence offers a modest amount of support for this belief). Scientists do not have to give advice to anybody unless they are employed by the government or industry to do so, and most scientists will simply want to go about their work.

Because Pielke is fond of illustrative tales, I will end with a story. At a conference held in Washington, DC, in 2003 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to discuss the findings of Science and Technical Advice to the Congress, a report prepared by M. Granger Morgan and Jon Pena of Carnegie Mellon University, a group of assembled luminaries sat listening to various presentations, including one by the majority and minority staff directors of a major science and technology committee. The two, a Republican and a Democrat, gave a brief presentation and asked for questions. Someone rose (to tell the truth, it was yours truly) and posed this question: Who would you turn to most frequently for scientific advice: a committee staff member who is tracking a topic, someone from the Congressional Research Service or a Congress-wide staff agency, an outside think tank person, a university scientist, or whom? To the surprise and slight consternation of the assembled colleagues, mostly academics, the two men said without batting an eye that they would turn to their favorite lobbyist. For a thoroughly knowledgeable analysis of the issue, for a fair presentation of both sides, for singling out the central points in dispute that required the Congress to decide, and for a prompt and timely response, the lobbyist won hands down. Lobbyists have to give you accurate information, they said, or their reputations will be ruined. They have experience, they know what you need, and they will give you a pretty good and pretty objective assessment of what we will have to tell our congresspeople.

Cite this Article

Smith, Bruce L. R. “Can Science Policy Advice Be Disinterested?” Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 4 (Summer 2008).

Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Summer 2008