In Defense of Evidence-Based Policy-Making
A DISCUSSION OFThe Science Policy We Deserve
Daniel Sarewitz is correct that scientific institutions prioritize gaining greater resources, sometimes pursuing this end by conjuring hyperbolic utopian futures. However, “The Science Policy We Deserve” (Issues, Summer 2020) also articulates specious views and defines straw-person arguments that forestall earnest debate about needed transformations in science systems.
It is true that political appeals for science funding are often framed in a cartoonishly simplistic manner, such as one the author cites: “If you add more money, you’ll get more science, and the world will get better.” In practice, however, such arguments are immediately nuanced to be something like, If you spend more money on the right kind of science addressing the right kind of problems, the world will probably get better. This version of the first belief, which is what mission-oriented science funding tends to look like, has some basis in empirical evidence.
The second belief that Sarewitz identifies is the view that “because more science delivers more truth, as long as politicians and policy-makers listen to what scientists are saying, they’ll make the right decisions about how to deal with the many challenges facing the world.” Some scientists certainly embody this egomaniacal belief, but so also do many nonscientists, many of whom believe that their professional or personal insights are the best. Still, there is no serious prospect of an American scientocracy, dictating funding and policy priorities for the nation unquestioned. In the real world, scientists struggle to be heard and funded alongside many others in society, and their institutional advocates use the tools of persuasion at their disposal (just like every other special interest).
Next, Sarewitz says the “state of the nation today amounts to a comprehensive and dispiriting falsification of those two beliefs.” He dispatches the idea that more science equals more truth by saying, “Spend a couple of hours reading up on the science of COVID-19 and you’ll quickly see that whatever truth’s virtues, there’s an awful lot of it floating around, enough for pretty much everyone to have a version on their side.” This is a sweeping dismissal of the possibility of evidence-based policy-making and decision-making. Here, Sarewitz seems to be rejecting the idea of “better” or “worse” levels of knowledge on a topic, and signaling that anything goes.
The “science of COVID-19” includes hard-won knowledge on viruses and infectious disease developed over more than a century. In fact, countries using such knowledge to orient their public policies, science communication, and technologically driven responses to the pandemic have fared far better than those whose leaders who took nihilistic, “anything goes” perspectives on scientific knowledge during this crisis (e.g., the United States and Brazil). The science system in the United States (and globally) is deeply problematic in numerous respects. But the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the opposite lesson that Sarewitz draws: we need an honest diagnosis of what works and why in the existing flawed system to guide the treatments required to deliver a healthy research and innovation ecosystem.
Eric A. Jensen
Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom