Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Scientists and government - a brief thought.

The syndrome of science as servant extends beyond the special circumstances of advisory duty in the White House. … The long-feared political imperialism of science has never mobilized, let alone gone on the march. Minor forays occur … [but] in appointive posts, …scientists perform as discreet servants of politics. In elective politics, they participate as individual voters, shunning organized efforts under the banner of science. (Greenberg, 2001)

This “syndrome” of advisory scientists as servants that Greenberg points to may be why administrations feel that it is “okay” to doctor statements given by their appointed scientists (those by the last Surgeon General and by government climate scientists come to mind here). Of course, when this comes to light, everyone is shocked that an “objective scientist” would lie to the public. Well, appointees can be asked to lie and even call their statements the truth. When they do (and are caught doing so or resign over it), that person loses credibility in his/her field of science (no one likes a liar), and (depending on the type of lies, and the impact of those lies on the public) eventually credibility amongst the populace. But, for now, this is enough about the recently-seen ramifications of Greenberg’s three statements, and on to the last one.

I wonder if Greenberg’s “organized efforts” are aimed at the efficacy of groups like the American Fisheries Society (AFS), North American Benthological Society (NABS), etc. But these are professional organizations, not politically-minded groups. However, these are organizations made up primarily of scientists within the field in question (it is unlikely that John Q Public would be a member of AFS or NABS, for example). These professional organizations’ power is based on their “objectivity”, not on their social advocacy. If the AFS asked its members to vote for candidate X, it would lose credibility from its members (since many scientists feel that they are intelligent and independent enough to make their own decisions, thank you very much), as well as from outsiders (since members of general society would feel that this would run counter to the objectivity of the scientists).

Groups which are more “boundary” (in terms of the science-policy divide) are what should fill in the void as the “organized efforts” to which Greenberg should be referring. Groups like Americans Association for the Advancement of Science work in the area between scientists and policy makers – acting not as political activists, but as enablers, trying to build a bridge between the two sides (at least that is how I view this construct).

On the other side of this “bridge” are groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and other pro-science activist organizations. (I list environmental science groups only because these are the ones of which I am most aware, and not because I think that only environmental groups are pro-science.) The role of these organizations is to lobby and pressure decision makers. They are not scientific organizations, but do use (and sometimes hire) scientists to do research for them. However, like all other lobbying organization, their raison d’être is not “science” (in the sense of an objective science), but that of influence policy based on a subset of all “science”. These groups are not made up exclusively of scientists, but usually from a mix of scientists and non-scientists. I would even go so far as to hazard a guess that in most cases, scientists that are members of these advocacy organizations did not join them in their capacity as “scientists”, but as a member of society that agrees with the group’s goals. (Duh.)

The book from which this excerpt was taken was published in 2001; before the large “misuses” of a variety of sciences by the George W. Bush presidential administration ranging from doctoring scientific reports to cutting funding for future research in areas that are politically disliked. Since that time, I wonder if the consistent misuse of science by this administration (and its cronies) will lead to the coalescence of voting blocks of scientists in the 2008 election (and if there was one in 2006). Of course, there is little way of knowing whether this hypothetical movement would be a voting behavior that happens to parallel that of advocacy groups (like the UCS), or is a result of the these groups’ actions.

On another level, though, I suspect that Greenberg’s definition of a “scientist” is relegated to that of the physical scientist – the scientist of ‘big science’ – and not the environmental scientist (which, as a group, tends toward having more social advocates), nor of social scientists – this is an underlying criticism of much of what I read about “science” and “scientists” (since I am not a physical scientist, but an environmental scientist). I only bring this up since in most of the physical sciences, there is an apparent disconnect between science and policy advocacy by the vast majority of the field’s scientists (as opposed to the field of environmental science, where the distance between scientists and advocates seems – to me – to be more narrow). If this is the case (and to be repetitive, I think it is), then Greenberg’s implication reads that scientists with memberships in professional scientific organizations (and not to advocacy groups with interests in their field of science) tend to vote as individuals. This is akin to saying that members of the National Basketball Association, vote as individuals (I’m assuming that there is no such thing as an “athlete voting bloc”).

Greenberg, Daniel S. (2001) Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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