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Science often used as weapon in polarized political arena, says speaker

by Cindy Weiss - October 22, 2007

Separating science and science policy in decision-making is a thorny matter for members of Congress and for scientists, suggested David Goldston in a recent lecture at UConn on “The Politicization of Science: Consequences and Prescriptions.”

Goldston, who was chief of staff of the U.S. House Committee on Science from 2001 to 2006, warned that in the polarized political arena in Washington, “Science becomes used as a weapon rather than as a tool.”

“Everybody wants to frame their argument as science,” he said. “People are invested in this notion that science will give you the answers.”

Scientists are being drawn into debates that blur science and public policy, said Goldston.

It’s good for them to be involved in political debates, but it should be recognized that they are just individuals who happen to be scientists giving an informed opinion.

People should not assume that the science leads to just one conclusion, he said.

Goldston, now a visiting lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and a monthly columnist for Nature, came to Washington in 1983 as the press secretary to the newly elected Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who was considered a moderate Republican.

When Boehlert became chairman of the Science Committee in 2001, Goldston became its staff director.

He retired from Washington when Boehlert retired at the end of 2006.

Goldston has a B.A. in American history from Cornell University, and has completed Ph.D. coursework in that subject at the University of Pennsylvania.

His talk at UConn was hosted by Mark W. Peczuh, associate professor of chemistry, and Kathleen Segerson, professor of economics, both in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The current political climate in Washington is as polarized as he has ever seen it, Goldston said. Ideology is driving policymakers far more than the public, he said.

“In this polarized world, the middle holds the vote that counts.”

What’s most interesting is how unconnected the debate is between science and science policy, he said.

Climate change is a case in point, where the scientific question has been identified and it is accepted that climate change is occurring, yet the policy options are not being framed or agreed to, he said: Congress is “pretty much ignoring it.”

In other cases, such as whether logging is a good or a bad environmental practice, the science questions are being asked and the answer is unclear, he said.

What can scientists do in this polarized environment?

First, like physicians, Goldston suggested, “Do no harm.”

“Scientists need to be open about uncertainty,” he said, adding that credibility is hurt when the level of uncertainty is minimized to further a cause.

“Scientists need to do their homework on the political system,” he said, and learn to “talk with at least the credibility of a normal conversation.” They should not treat politicians with contempt, he added.

Most important is separating science decisions from policy decisions, he said.

“Make sure that the science is heard, but it won’t solve the policy issue for you,” he warned.

Many policy questions in the end boil down to economics, Goldston said.

“For a lot of the issues in science policy, the ideal background would probably be a Ph.D. in economics.”

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