Social Change and Science Policy

Closer links among science, social goals, and democratic processes are essential to the future health of science and society.

One can almost hear the collective sigh of relief coming from the federally funded science community. Only a year ago, analysts were forecasting 20 to 30 percent cuts in funding for nondefense R&D as part of the congressional plan to balance the federal budget by the year 2002. But this year’s budget scenario suggests that a 10 percent reduction over the next five years may be closer to the mark, as continued economic growth enhances the federal revenue picture. Even better news may come from bipartisan political support for R&D in Congress. Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) has introduced a bill calling for a doubling of federal funds for “basic science and medical research” over the next decade, and his ideological antithesis, Rep. George E. Brown, Jr., (D-Calif.) has developed a budget-balancing plan that provides 5 percent annual increases for R&D. Although few would deny that the post-World War II era of rapidly rising federal R&D expenditures has come to an end, current trends seem to imply that the worst fears of science-watchers were vastly overstated. As recently reported in Science: “After two years of uncertainty, the White House and Congress seem to be moving toward stable funding for science and technology.”

Even in the face of such relatively good news, the R&D enterprise is not well served by complacency. Continued exponential growth of federal entitlement programs, if left unchecked, will threaten the budgetary picture for R&D and other discretionary programs for years to come. But such fiscal considerations are only one element of a national context for science and technology that has changed radically in the 1990s and will likely continue to change well into the next century. Successful response to this evolving context may require a fundamental rethinking of federal R&D policy. Failure to respond could lead to a devastating loss of public support for research.

What are the essential components of the new context for federally funded S&T? Here I focus on three emerging social trends whose potential implications are neither sufficiently acknowledged nor adequately understood.

Interest-group politics. From AIDS activists to environmentalists, from antiabortion advocates to animal rights organizations, interest groups composed largely of nonscientists increasingly seek to influence the federal research agenda. This trend is not surprising: As science and technology have become increasingly integral to the fabric of daily life, it is natural to expect that the populace will seek a correspondingly stronger voice in setting R&D policies.

Scientists, of course, may view such activism as a threat to the integrity and vitality of science. But the standard argument that only scientists are qualified to determine appropriate priorities and directions for research is intrinsically self-serving and thus politically unconvincing. Moreover, there is ample evidence that when scientists work cooperatively with knowledgeable activists from outside the research community, science as well as society can benefit. Increased sensitivity about the ethics of animal experimentation, reduced gender bias in clinical trials for non-sex-specific diseases, changing protocols for clinical trials involving AIDS sufferers, and evolving priorities in environmental and biomedical research all reflect the input of groups that were motivated by societal, rather than scientific, interests. Science has changed from this input but it has not suffered. More of such change is inevitable, as exemplified by the success of recent lawsuits brought against the National Academy of Sciences by outside groups seeking to provide input into academy studies.

Societal alienation. In an affluent nation such as the United States, the promise of continual societal progress fueled by more scientific and technological progress will become harder to fulfill, simply because the basic human needs of most people have been met, and the idea of progress increasingly derives from aspirations and satisfactions that are intangible, subjective, and culturally defined. At the very least, the direct contribution of science and technology to the general quality of life in affluent societies may have reached a state of diminishing returns. The promise that more science will lead to more societal benefits may increasingly be at odds with the experience of individuals who find their lives changing in ways they cannot control and in directions they do not desire. For example, continued innovation in information and communication technologies fuels economic growth and creates many conveniences, but it also undermines traditional community institutions and relationships that may be crucial to the welfare of the nation. The resulting disaffection can fuel social movements that are antagonistic to science and technology.

Scientists commonly misinterpret the origins of this public antagonism. Determined opposition to technologies such as nuclear power is often portrayed as nothing more than a reflection of inadequate public understanding of science, coupled with irrational attitudes about risk or technological change. But public opposition may also reflect a rational desire for more democratic control over technologies and institutions that profoundly influence daily life. The recent news of the successful cloning of a sheep portends an acceleration of this sort of tension. Such issues are debated primarily in terms of ethics and values-realms in which scientists have no special standing. The idea that greater scientific literacy among the public will reduce conflict is almost certainly incorrect: Survey results from Europe show that the nations with the highest rates of scientific literacy also display the highest degree of skepticism about the benefits of science and technology and the judgment of scientists.

Socioeconomic inequities. The distribution of wealth in the United States has grown increasingly inequitable over the past two decades. Income disparity between the top and bottom 10 percent of households almost doubled during this period. Family incomes for the lower half of the economic spectrum may actually have declined in the 1980s, whereas incomes for the top 1 percent of families increased by more than 60 percent. Such income disparities translate into inequity of opportunity for education, employment, health, and environmental quality.

At the same time, the transition of the U.S. economy from industrial to postindustrial has been fueled, in no small part, by the scientific and technological advances of the information age. Indeed, the federal investment in R&D is typically justified by scientists and policymakers alike as a crucial component of economic growth. Yet, for a significant portion of the population-those with declining incomes, those who have lost good jobs in the manufacturing sector, and those who graduate from high school or even college with their employment options limited to poorly paid service-sector jobs-the economic and social realities of technology-led growth may not translate into progress. Furthermore, in a free-market society, the problem-solving capacity of science and technology will preferentially serve those who already have a high standard of living, because that is the source of the market demand that stimulates research and innovation. Thus, unless the trend toward increased socioeconomic inequity is successfully redressed, large segments of the populace may eventually realize that they have not benefited and will not benefit from the national investment in science and technology.

As an example, consider that the life expectancy of the average African American is about six years less than that of the average Caucasian. In fact, the life expectancy of African Americans in the 1980s actually declined, the first such decline in this century. African Americans, as a community, might therefore reasonably conclude that a biomedical R&D effort that focuses on diseases of old age and affluence does not serve their public health needs. Such a conclusion could stimulate political action that supports different biomedical R&D priorities or supports a shifting of funds from R&D to other programs.

Obviously, these three social trends are the result of complex social, economic, and political factors of which R&D is just one component. But scientific and technological progress is in fact implicated in these trends because such progress is a prime catalyst for change in the postindustrial world. From the effect of information technologies on the structure of labor markets and communities to the impact of biomedical research on the cost and ethics of health care, the products of R&D influence people’s lives in complex, profound, and irreversible ways that are not always positive or equitable.

A unifying theme that is beginning to emerge from this rapidly evolving social context is that of democratic control over science and technology. Socioeconomic inequity reflects the inability of significant segments of the population to appropriate the benefits of the public investment in R&D. Alienation reflects the inability of individuals and groups to control the impacts of R&D on their lives. In both cases, the democratic process, from local protests to lawsuits to legislation, will be a natural avenue for change. The recent successes of interest groups in the R&D arena demonstrate that change is possible and presage an expansion of such activity in the future.

What’s a scientist to do?

How can the R&D community respond productively to a social context that demands a more democratically responsive science and technology policy? Unfortunately, the responsiveness of the community is compromised by a policy debate whose terms are largely the same as they were in the earliest days of the Cold War. This dogma is rooted, of course, in Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 report Science, the Endless Frontier. Integral to Bush’s argument is the idea that scientific progress leads inevitably and automatically to social progress. According to this view, the magnitude of scientific progress is the crucial metric of success, because all such progress must ultimately contribute to societal well-being. The incentive and reward system for science in turn is based on this metric. Democratic input into the system is both unnecessary and counterproductive because it cannot improve on the ability of the scientific community to maximize its own productivity.

The idea of a more “democratized” R&D policy understandably generates fear and resistance among scientists who recognize that history is littered with failed and immoral attempts to exert political control over the direction of science. But to equate a more democratically responsive R&D system to Stalinist Lysenkoism or Nazi science is to turn the concept of democracy on its head. Increased democratic input into R&D policy decisions can in fact empower science by creating stronger linkages between research goals and societal goals, linkages that can ensure strong public support well into the future.

The recent rise of special interest groups seeking to influence R&D policy points out both the dangers and the promise of the trend toward democratization. The danger is that the interest groups with the most political and economic power will come to dominate the R&D agenda, perhaps exacerbating the problems of alienation and inequity that can undermine support for publicly funded science and technology. The promise is that the legitimate successes of such groups can help us understand how to design and develop new institutional arrangements for cultivating a more democratically responsive R&D enterprise. Such successes demonstrate not only that an informed public can productively contribute to science policy discourse but also that such contributions can create mutual understanding among scientists and the public, constructively influence the conduct of science in response to evolving ethical norms, and modify the direction of science so that it can better address societal goals and priorities.

How can such outcomes be encouraged? Policies that foster receptiveness to change within the R&D community are crucial. Institutional incentives and goals for research must broaden. Considering the huge financial pressures now faced by universities and government laboratories, the exploration of alternative missions should be viewed as an essential survival strategy. What if public service were rewarded as strongly as a number of publications or patents? If helping a community or an organization to address a technical issue or problem was a criterion for promotion, peer approval would follow. It is hard to imagine that such a change would lessen public support for R&D. Moreover, positive feedback between social needs and the research agenda would begin to evolve at a grassroots level.

On scales ranging from national to local, legitimate mechanisms must be created for enhancing public participation in the process of defining, prioritizing, and directing R&D goals and activities. The congressional authorization and appropriations process is not such a mechanism at present because most input is provided by scientists and research administrators. The efforts of special interest groups to influence this process is a step in the right direction but may lead to distortions of its own. In 1992, the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government recommended the creation of a National Forum on Science and Technology goals. The forum was envisioned as a venue for public participation in the definition of national R&D goals and as a mechanism for incorporating public opinion into the science and technology policymaking process. More recently, the commission recommended the creation of Natural Resource Science Forums to bring scientists together with stakeholders trying to resolve environmental disputes. Both ideas deserve further development.

Numerous European nations are experimenting with ways to more fully involve the public in the science and technology policy process. In Sweden, Denmark,and Norway, considerable progress has been made in linking workers and managers in the manufacturing sector with university scientists to help design innovation paths that benefit both workers and corporations. In the Netherlands, every university has an outreach program aimed at responding to the noncommercial technological problems of local communities. Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Norway have organized citizen conferences to address controversial aspects of biotechnology R&D, as well as other issues ranging from human infertility to telecommuting. Nascent efforts along these lines in the United States, such as those recently launched by the nonprofit Loka Institute, deserve the strong support and cooperation of U.S. scientists.

The very success of modern science and technology-the capacity to transform every aspect of existence and every institution of society-brings R&D policy inextricably into the realm of democracy. Resistance to the democratizing trend will likely be futile and counterproductive. The challenge facing policymakers and scientists is to embrace this changing social context in a way that strengthens our R&D effort.

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Cite this Article

Sarewitz, Daniel. “Social Change and Science Policy.” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 4 (Summer 1997).

Vol. XIII, No. 4, Summer 1997