30 June 2009

The Rightful Place of Science? Within the Bosom of the Democratic Party

In the current Issues in Science and Technology Dan Sarewitz has an essay titled "The Rightful Place of Science" available here in PDF. Dan is a brilliant writer and a creative genius. It is amazing that he is not a major columnist for a leading newspaper or magazine.

Here are a few excerpts from his excellent piece on science and politics in the Obama era:

On Obama's stem cell policies:
. . .there is nothing at all anti-science about restricting the pursuit of scientific knowledge on the basis of moral concerns. Societies do this all the time; for example, with strict rules on human subjects research. The Bush and Obama policies differ only as a matter of degree; they are fundamentally similar in that neither one cedes moral authority to science and scientists. When it comes to embryonic stem cells, the “rightful place of science” remains a place that is located, debated, and governed through democratic political processes.
On Obama's decision to terminate Yucca Mountain's site characterization:
All of the major Democratic presidential candidates, seeking an edge in the 2008 election, opposed the site; shutting it down was one of Barack Obama’s campaign promises, which he fulfilled by cutting support for the program in the fiscal year 2010 budget, an action accompanied by no fanfare and no public announcement.

At this point it is tempting to write: “It’s hard to imagine a case where politics trumped science more decisively than in the case of Yucca Mountain, where 20 years of research were traded for five electoral votes and the support of a powerful senator,” which seems basically correct, but taken out of context it could be viewed as a criticism of President Obama, which it is not. But the point I want to make is only slightly more subtle: Faced with a complex amalgam of scientific and political factors, President Obama chose shortterm political gain over longer-term scientific assessment, and so decided to put an end to research aimed at characterizing the Yucca Mountain site. This decision can easily be portrayed in the same type of language that was used to attack President Bush’s politicization of science.
On science as a political carrot:
When President Obama was urgently seeking to push his economic stimulus package through Congress in the early days of his administration, he needed the support of several Republican senators to guard against Republican filibuster and to bolster the claim that the stimulus bill was bipartisan. Senator Arlen Specter, who suffers from Hodgkin’s disease, agreed to back the stimulus package on the condition that it includes $10 billion in additional funding for NIH. For this price a vote was bought and a filibuster-proof majority was achieved.

Now there is nothing at all wrong with making political deals like this; good politics is all about making deals. What’s interesting in this case is the pivotal political importance of a senator’s support for science. If Senator Specter (who, perhaps coincidentally, underwent a party conversion several months later) had asked for $10 billion for a new weapons system or for abstinence-only counseling programs, would his demand have been met?
Bottom line:
And so perhaps we have now discovered the rightful place of science: not on a pedestal, not impossibly insulated from politics and disputes about morality, but nestled within the bosom of the Democratic Party. Is this a good place for science to be? For the short term, increased budgets and increased influence for the scientific-technological elite will surely be good for the scientific enterprise itself. Serious attention to global environmental threats, to national energy security, to the complex difficulties of fostering technological innovation whose economic outcomes are not largely captured by the wealthy, are salutary priorities of the Obama administration and welcome correctives to the priorities of his predecessor.

But ownership of a powerful symbol can give rise to demagoguery and self-delusion. President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq. In turn, a scientific-technological elite unchecked by healthy skepticism and political pluralism may well indulge in its own excesses. Cults of expertise helped bring us the Vietnam War and the current economic meltdown. Uncritical belief in and promotion of the redemptive power of scientific and technological advance is implicated in some of the most difficult challenges facing humans today. In science, Democrats appear to have discovered a surprisingly potent political weapon. Let us hope they wield it with wisdom and humility.
Do read the whole thing.