Science and Democracy

The impact of technical matters in the public realm has been accelerating over the past century. Policy makers need to make decisions about matters that can be informed by science, mathematics, and economics. Yet each of those decisions must also reflect subjective priorities, personal beliefs or societal values as well. In 1952, noted political philosopher John Dewey observed the damage that can be done by confusing these two different realms:

“Holding science to be an entity by itself . . . and then blaming it for social evils, . . .with a view to subordinating it to moral ideals, is of no positive benefit. On the contrary, it distracts us from using our knowledge and our most competent methods of observation in the performance of the work they are able to do.”

That is, by failing to recognize that there are moral dimensions beyond the scope of science, we risk sacrificing the important contribution that science can make. C.P. Snow identified the growing chasm between the sciences and the humanities in 1959 in his talkĀ “The Two Cultures,” weakening the contribution both sides can make to an understanding of the world. And in 1962, President Kennedy acknowledged the challenge this way:

“Old sweeping issues very largely have disappeared. The central domestic issues of our time are more subtle and less simple. They relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals–to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” Kennedy urged the country to “face technical problems without ideological preconceptions,” and to focus on “the sophisticated and technical issues involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.”

In a recent book from MIT Press, Science and Democracy, Mark Brown emphasizes that although addressing issues like global warming, sex education or teaching evolution,

“depends in part on science, efforts to eliminate politics from science advice inevitably lead to conflicts over what is ‘political.’ The result is to displace the political conflict onto science. Science becomes a proxy battleground for politics. In this respect, those calling for science advice free of politics are as guilty of politicizing science as their adversaries- even as they simultaneously scientize politics, by implying that political questions can be resolved by science. As a result, the need for inclusive public deliberation and contestation on such issues- informed by science, of course, but not subordinated to it- becomes obscured and political conflicts become intractable.”

Coro National has recently had the opportunity to team up with a group of engineering students at the University of Texas at Austin. For them, the intersection of scientific endeavor and political decision making is a recurring theme, and directly relevant to their future work and impact. These students, in theĀ Webber Energy Group affiliated with the Cockrell School of Engineering, have a special interest in connecting their scientific research and other technical work to implementation of policies and practices that address environmental and energy issues. Several are pursuing dual masters degrees in engineering and in public policy at the LBJ School. This makes them a receptive audience for Coro’s work on effective functioning in the public arena. The latest seminar together, held during their participation at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) looked at the continuum of roles from pure science to application, basic research to advocacy and policy-making, and the roles that these talented individuals may choose to play during their careers.

Participants were asked to look at five questions:

  1. What roles are appropriate for technical people in the political arena?
  2. What are the barriers to scientific research having a greater impact on public decision making?
  3. What intervention points are there to address those barriers?
  4. What skills, attributes and motivation do these students have personally to guide them in selecting effective roles for themselves?
  5. What resources are available to support them in their future pursuit of impact?