APS News

In Search of an Improved Science and Public Policy Process

By David Hafemeister

Historians tell us that there are many driving forces of history, such as the forces of great persons, those that divide or unite nations, and those between competing economic systems. My personal conclusion is that science and technology is the foremost driving force of history. What we scientists and engineers discover, the industrialists will produce and society will consume. Take away modern agricultural, military, transportation and communication technologies and a very different society appears. It is clear that society is not eager to destroy our looms, automobiles and CD players.

Along with this primal role of creation, physicists have the concomitant responsibility to do our best to determine the impacts of implementation. This is serious business. There is no room for errors of omission or commission. Because the stakes are very high and because science means knowledge, we are obligated to be honest, objective and open. Too often our analysis fails to mention major uncertainties and competing issues that are not directly comparable. It is our job to lay out all the facts and ask the hard questions.

On several issues I have observed a less than stellar science and technology policy process: (1) lurching towards a plutonium policy in the 1970s; (2) determining the appropriate level of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War; (3) debating the extent and significant of Soviet "cheating"; and (4) considering a 2 mGauss standard for powerlines. These and other examples have convinced me that the science and technology decision process needs help.

I would argue that today's general cynicism of rational thought undercuts the policy process. As part of this, the anti-science movement has contributed to an environment in which the issues can be clouded and mishandled. This movement is not new - it has been with us since before Galileo was put under house arrest. Our main hope is the credibility of our scientific citizens who use an open, peer-reviewed process to state our limitations and uncertainties. I offer the following ideas on improving the science and technology public policy process.

Individual Ethics

The 1991 APS "Guidelines for Professional Conduct" and the 1993 AAAS position paper on "Good Science and Responsible Scientists" are excellent statements as far as they go, on nonfabrication of data, authorship, peer review and conflict of interests. But the importance of science and technology issues demands a stricter, more proactive code of ethics. This demands a discussion of uncertainties, ranges of estimates in numbers, opinions, and lists of omissions; peer review comments from a wide group of reviewers; condemnation of those who favor your conclusions, but who use data incorrectly or overstate the case; and responses to questions from nonpartisan omsbudsmen who represent truth-seeking as compared to advocacy.

A Non-Adjudicatory Process

In the 1970s, there was a flurry of interest in Arthur Kantrowitz's concept of the Science Court, in which scientific experts would be the judges and "case managers." These individuals were to be unconnected to the dispute, with the hope of removing hard-charging advocacy. The Science Court was not to be empowered to make judicial decisions, but only to give recommendations to the courts or decision makers.

For a variety of conflicting reasons, the Science Court did not survive, but an excellent result appeared from its byproduct, the Scientific Advisory Procedure. In 1985, under the leadership of Kantrowitz, Edward Gerry (arguing in favor of the Strategic Defense Initiative) and Richard Garwin (arguing in opposition), discussed the issue under formal procedures and drew up a list of agreed statements that both could support. If those 15 agreed statements had been widely publicized and ultimately accepted as honest output from two excellent scientists who fundamentally disagreed, the SDI debate could have been narrowed and made more rational. If the results had been read in executive branch and congressional meetings, it would have considerably raised the level of discussion.

Questions for the Record

Sometimes the U.S. Congress has done a good job of handling controversial science and technology issues, but often it has not. The Congress has a unique opportunity to produce hearing records with penetrating follow-up questions to and from experts. However, the members of Congress often feel that hearing records are of little importance, and they are often printed after the issue has been settled. These decisions are often made by non-scientists who don't care about setting the record straight and don't worry about clarifying the issues.

For example, the concern that nuclear waste to be stored at Yucca Mountain might explode could have been rapidly clarified with some penetrating technical questions to those on both sides of the issue. It would not have taken a great deal to show what had and had not been calculated. Of course, the National Academy of Science can and does perform this task, but it often seems to take too long for the NAS to produce its product, and the system often doesn't know how to absorb it. And of course, we can all think of an NAS study that we thought was wrong!

Benevolent Omsbudspersons

Science must be honest, objective and open, and the same holds true for science and technology policy. If two divergent groups of honest scientists could work together and prepare an annual report of errors and overstatements on science and technology issues, this would put pressure on scientists to pay attention to the code of ethics discussed earlier. The APS has the credible intellectual talent to do this, but I can't imagine the Society would want to get involved in all of the issues. Perhaps two nongovernmental organizations with differing constituents could develop panels of impeccable scientists to ask questions of the proponents and assess who went beyond the truth. I am hopeful that our scientific training would make the difference for removing "lies, damn lies and bad statistics."

I am still searching for the perfect wave. Paraphrasing A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad":

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say
"Give me scientific facts and logical thought and the society will choose wisely."
Now I am two-and-sixty,
And oh, 'tis not always, 'tis not always true.

David Hafemeister is a professor in the physics department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, and chaired the APS Panel on Public Affairs in 1996. An earlier version of this article appeared in the October 1996 newsletter of the APS Forum on Physics and Society.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin