Talk to Me
No president has ever lacked for free advice. Everyone has some policy wisdom to share. But the Bush administration has been plagued with advice-related complaints. It began with receiving secret advice on energy policy from the energy industry, continued with not asking the scientific community for its advice on global warming, and went on to ignoring the advice that it eventually asked for. The administration’s Office of Management and Budget proposed that it would seek more rigorous scientific guidance in the review of regulations, but it ran into trouble with its position on whose advice could be trusted. Now the Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a report about what it finds wrong with the way the administration is selecting members for its advisory committees, and a group of distinguished scientists released a statement making essentially the same point.
Of course, many of the Bush critics are hardly acolytes of rigorous science. In the March 8, 2004, issue of The Nation, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., writes a scathing indictment of the “flat-earthers” in the Bush administration and their assault on science. A good choirboy, he sings the praises of the labcoats: “Science, like theology, reveals transcendent truths about a changing world. At their best, scientists are moral individuals whose business is to seek the truth.” As the tears began to form in my eyes, I read on to discover that Kennedy has worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which loudly demonstrated its own abuse of science a few years ago in its over-hyped and under-reviewed report on the dangers of the pesticide Alar. Apparently, we do not want to go too far in trusting the judgment of nerds.
The distinguished scientific leaders who signed the statement criticizing the Bush administration are undoubtedly right that the administration has taken some regrettable actions. (Am I going to dismiss a group of Nobel laureates and former government officials that includes quite a few Issues contributors?) The problem is that the statement can be read as a squabble between Democratic and Republican scientists. David H. Guston, E. J. Woodhouse, and Daniel Sarewitz made a more fundamental point in “A Science and Technology Policy for the Bush Administration” (Issues, Spring 2001): “The real need is for better integration of science policy with other types of social policy, rather than for greater isolation of science policy.”
As long as scientific advice is treated as some form of transcendent truth that exists outside the give and take of political negotiation, there will be a premium on appointing committees that come to predictable conclusions. Once the scientific advice has been offered, the scientists can be sent home so that the political players can get down to the real work of crafting policy. If, instead, science is simply one of the voices at the table where policy is discussed, it will be more influential and less vulnerable to political grandstanding. Let’s take science off the pedestal. It needs less reverence and more power. Scientists should not aspire to be listened to. They need to be talked to and engaged in argument. The real problem with this and previous administrations is the failure to fully integrate science into the larger process of setting national policy across a broad spectrum of concerns from health to defense and education to the environment.