Science as a Model for Rational, Legitimate Government Capable of Meeting Society’s Grand Challenges

Lewis M. Branscomb
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and University of California San Diego.

[The following is a slightly edited version of an address made by Dr. Branscomb at the April meeting of the APS held in Denver, Colorado, May 2-5, 2009 – Ed.]

Before World War II, science was largely dependent on support through teaching and a few foundations. A few government laboratories were well established even in the 19th century – the National Bureau of Standards and the Coast and Geological Surveys among them – but they were small efforts. The thousands of physicists who today attend the spring meeting of the American Physical Society would never fit in the room on the second floor of the Bureau of Standards East Building. But when I joined the Bureau staff in 1951, all 50 participating scientists fit easily in that room. In the last half century, thanks largely to the contribution of applied science to winning the Second World War, the vision of people like Vannevar Bush, and the threat posed after the war by the Soviet Union, our government became a deep-pockets source of support for science. At first, many academic science administrators were deeply suspicious of government as a sponsor, fearing constraints on their intellectual freedom and uncertain continuity of support. But the research universities, under leadership of people like Fred Terman at Stanford, soon saw the opportunity and took the risk to build their engineering and science programs around soft government research grant support. Government saw science as a means for sustaining its military primacy. In 1960, the U. S. Department of Defense funded fully one third of all R&D funded in the Western World.

Thus a marriage was consummated by two partners, science and politics, who needed each other, but for quite different and to some degree conflicting motives. In our democracy, the relationship between science and politics has never been easy, but in the minds of the drafters of the Constitution it was always important. The search for truth in science and for legitimacy in politics both require systems for generating trust, but these systems are not the same and indeed they are often incompatible. The most profound area of mismatch between science and politics is found, not in conflicts over how much research is deserving of public funding, but rather in conflicts over the advice government receives from scientific and technical experts on important but primarily non-technical matters of policy. Thus, as Harvey Brooks of Harvard University once famously said, it is not over "policy for science" that the conflicts arise but over "science for policy."

It is no accident that democratic America fostered progress in science and technology, perhaps more than any other nation. Democracy and science stand to benefit enormously when our political leaders understand that the traditions of science and the mechanics of democracy have common roots. Both American democracy and modern science are products of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and openness rather than on religious and political authority [1]. American democracy has always benefited from a pragmatic willingness to learn from experience, very much as science relies on experiment. Progress in science is based on transparency, accountability, and trust; these are also basic principles of sustainable democratic government. Thus if science and democracy are both to flourish, government must be pragmatic, open, and viewed by the voters as legitimate and responsive to voter desires. If science is corrupted by government, government itself is in danger of becoming corrupt. And conversely, when government allows itself to become corrupt, science advice is sure to suffer as well.

In recent years, we seemed to have been going down that treacherous path. During the recent political campaign, presidential-candidate Barack Obama promised to reverse that trend. He, and many media commentators, spoke often of a "new pragmatism" as his guiding principle for governance. As President, Obama is off to a very good start, having appointed exceptionally well-qualified scientists to top posts in his government, and having initiated many of the changes he promised in his campaign.

But that leaves a major question unanswered. If government is to depend on science for practical advice on policy choices, it is not enough for the politicians to be pragmatic and be prepared to listen to the independent advice of the best experts. Having listened to science they must now find support from the public for the policies they put forward. But for the voting public to understand and support those choices, it must have some understanding of the technical basis for political decisions. If the voters are ignorant of technical matters, how can they evaluate the performance of government officials, and thus establish the legitimacy of their governance? Science must, therefore, not only give wise advice to government, but must also find a way to share their understanding of the factual basis for policy choices with the public. If we are to preserve the legitimate and accountable democracy envisioned by the authors of the Constitution and enjoy the fruits of an intelligent, informed society, government must be responsive to a well informed voting public, and science (and the media) must more effectively share what they know with the public.

But how well informed is that public? The Public Agenda, a non-profit research organization founded in 1975 by Daniel Yankelovich and Cyrus Vance, has been studying that question. They began by asking what the public knows and thinks about energy policy.The Public Agenda recently released a new study entitled "The Energy Learning Curve." Here are some of their findings, as summarized on the Public Agenda's website:

"There's significant common ground in public thinking on what the nation should do about energy. The public also thinks our energy challenge is here to stay. Three-quarters of the public believes we should move toward increased use of alternative energy, even if fuel prices go down."

The study identified ten proposals on alternative energy, energy efficiency and cutting gasoline use. These 10 have support from more than two-thirds of the public. A strong majority approve providing tax benefits to individuals and businesses who reduce energy consumption, 81 percent and 79 percent respectively. Seventy-eight percent approved increased gas-mileage requirements and would reward businesses that reduce carbon emissions and penalize those that do not. Some 86 percent agreed either "strongly" or "somewhat" that investing in alternative energy will create many new jobs. Nearly seven in ten (68 percent) want the nation to take steps to gain energy independence even if it raises costs.

But the report also found widespread agreement on some ideas that are off the table for the public, at least right now. "People don't want to be pushed," the report found, and they "don't want to do anything that increases the cost of driving." There was strong opposition to all such options:gas taxes to fund development of renewable energy sources (53 percent), taxes to help achieve energy independence (57 percent), setting minimum prices for gas (72 percent), or congestion pricing to force people to change their driving habits (61 percent).

Even so, the report continues, the cost of fuel and dependence on foreign oil remain the public's biggest concerns about energy. Nearly nine in ten (89 percent) say they worry about price increases, with 57 percent who worry "a lot." Concern about dependence on foreign oil is almost as high at 83 percent (47 percent worry "a lot") Climate change is lower on the public's priorities list. While 71 percent say they worry about global warming, only 32 percent say they worry about it "a lot," Public worry about global warming ranked 25 points less than those who worry about prices.

What is particularly interesting is the contrast between the large majorities in favor of policies that the technical community would also support, and the frailty of the public's scientific understanding on which these convictions rest. Thus the study goes on to say,

"But there are reasons to wonder how well this consensus would stand up under pressure. Our research shows that the public does not know critical facts about the problem. Half of all Americans (51 percent) could not correctly identify a renewable energy source such as solar or wind power, 39 percent could not name a fossil fuel, 65 percent overestimated U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and 52 percent thought that by reducing smog, the United States has come "a long way" in addressing global warming."

Could it be, then, that lack of understanding of the most basic relevant technical facts is at least in part responsible for public unwillingness to accept any policy that increases the cost of driving, even though nearly seven in ten want the nation to "take steps to gain energy independence even if it raises costs?"

Dan Yankelovich concludes that the state of public education is such that science cannot rely on telling the public what we think they need to know. We cannot depend on well-intentioned programs of "public science literacy" or "public understanding of science." We must partner with government in a major effort to upgrade public education at all levels.

We must also face the fact that some people are nervous about direct democracy as the right principle of the public's role in Policy for Science, if not in Science for Policy. For example, Donna Gerardi Riordan express such reluctance in Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2008) under the title "Research Funding via Direct Democracy: Is It Good for Science?" To be sure, the Founding Fathers had little problem with direct democracy since in their day the voters were landed, mostly well-educated white men, a small fraction of the population. Today we must carry out the basic ideas of the Enlightenment in a society that must link the entire voting public with both the elite (specialists and experts) and the empowered (government officials).

Sound policy and accountable democratic governance do not depend only on a good relationship between science and politics. In reality it depends on a triangle comprised of political institutions, the community of experts, and the voting public. When one examines the science policy literature, much of it is about science advice and scientific integrity in government. They are important, but the scientists' concern for the role of the voting public leg of that triangle is particularly weak. That role has been largely left to a fourth player, the media.

How well does the media help scientists to inform the public and help the public learn from science and use that knowledge to evaluate the quality of political governance? Dan Yankelovich parses the role of the media's role in public policy into three stages. For important emergent issues, such as energy policy, the first stage in the media's role is "consciousness-raising" about what the issues are. Yankelovich gives the media good marks for this role in public education. The second stage, "working through those issues," is where the media fall short. This is the stage where sorting out the facts and the evidence they rest on is most important. Here the media perform badly. The third stage Yankelovich calls "implementation." He thinks the media do OK here, since this is the phase of political consensus development, which rests on the public-to-politics link, where the media are more comfortable.

Thus there are weaknesses in all three legs of the triangle, and the media do not adequately compensate for the weakness in the relations between science and the public or between science and politics.

What is the prospect for building a stronger, more rational society, given the complexities and weaknesses in the current system of governance and the public participation that validates it? The task seems daunting but one can at least list four main challenges:

  1. Through reform of the election process and lobbying rules, weaken the dependence of politics on moneyed interests and replace special interest politics with greater dependence on public evaluation and approval.
  2. Include in the education of scientists, engineers and other experts the skills to communicate with the voting public, and enhance their sense of obligation to do so. The technical community must also take greater interest in the public issues to which their work is relevant, and the channels through which expert knowledge informs both the public and political decisions.
  3. Reduce the concentration of ownership of the media, recognize the power of the internet to replace traditional channels and enhance the incentive of all media channels to do a better job of "working through the issues" – i.e., to help the public and the politicians to understand the facts and the unknowns on which sound public policy must rest.
  4. As one component of government funding of research [in addition to pure science and applied research] establish funding for "Jeffersonian Science," long term, creative research that may be relevant to society's most difficult challenges. Government should identify these "grand challenges" and provide funding for unsolicited proposals to explore new ideas for increasing options for making those goals easier to understand and solve. A key requirement here is the availability of high levels of expertise and good judgment both in government and available to government.

Let me explain how what in 2001 I called "Jeffersonian science" might work. The top scientists in the executive branch agencies responsible for achieving a new energy economy, or advances in medicine that will reduce costs and improve public health, or reversing nuclear weapons proliferation would put in place the applied and engineering work that can be accelerated today. But they would also commission panels of experts for each goal who would identify the lively areas of basic science where new ideas might dramatically accelerate the applied and engineering progress. In these areas agencies such as DOE, NSF, and NIH would fund those unsolicited proposals in the identified. disciplinary areas. The funded scientists would not expect to become experts in the applied national goal, and if their work did not turn out to the relevant, no matter. Their work would be measured by the quality of the science, like the more traditional "Newtonian" basic science. My prediction, however, is that as these scientists came into contact with others who are funded by the same mechanism, they would quickly become knowledgeable about the possibilities of breakthrough discoveries that do accelerate achievement of the grand challenge goals.

How well is the Obama administration likely to address these issues? The Administration is committed to tackling item 1 – reforming politics. The intent to reform politics is there, but so far the bi-partisan cooperation in Congress has not emerged. There is not yet explicit commitment to item 2 – motivating scientists to take more seriously their obligation to inform the public, but Obama's "new pragmatism" approach surely implies the need to do this. In addition there is evidence that the technical professional societies, including the American Physical Society, are taking the issue more seriously. Indeed, the annual meeting of the AAAS in February 2010 in San Diego will be focused on this issue. As yet we have heard little about item 3 - media reform. Except for the government's authority to place legal constraints on anti-competitive concentrations of media channel ownership, this reform must be left to the media organizations themselves and the publics they serve. Media objectivity and independence are essential to a democracy, as is their capacity to work through complex technical issues.

The good news is that applying basic science to society's grand challenges, with energy, health and education policy at the top of the list, is a serious commitment. The President has set out the domestic grand challenge priorities, and he has said to the annual meeting of the National Academy Sciences that he is depending on science to help the nation make rapid progress on each. He has also made a dramatic commitment on the research resources: "…we will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development." Now John Holdren, Steve Chu, Jane Lubchenko and their colleagues will be able to design the process that I called Jeffersonian science 8 years ago, as they carry out the bottom-up research funding in support of the top-down, Presidentially defined grand challenges remains to be seen. If it all works out, perhaps this mode of applying the best and most long range scientific thinking to the nation's most urgent goals will be called "Obamian Science."

Given the high quality and leadership skills of the Obama scientific appointees, I am hopeful that they can also help energize the scientific community to seize the occasion to introduce a more rational, enlightened approach to solving our problems, both domestic and global.

While we have a terrific team of technical leaders named for key roles in government, it is rather as though we citizen-voters, watching from the bleachers, are just now seeing our players coming out of the tunnel into the field. How will our smarter, more energetic team, with a terrific new coach, fare against the traditional opposition of really big players – from entrenched interests, ideological foes of scientific knowledge, and those who want instant gratification? The outcome of the game is not certain, but our team has its eye on the fourth quarter, and deserves wholehearted support from its fans. If they win I am sure the Founding Fathers would be proud [2].


[1]Kurt Gottfried and Harold Varmus, "The Enlightenment returns," Science 323, 1538 (20 March 2009).
[2]Reworded from Lewis Branscomb, "Science and the Obama Administration," Emeriti Associations Chronicles 8(4), 1-2 (March 2009; University of California San Diego).

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.