Science in Government Policy

In last week's editorial in Science, Bruce Alberts starts with a point that I think few here would disagree with: decisions in government need to be data-driven, and based on the best science available. This point has been made before, and it's certainly crucial, but the more crucial point is why the government currently doesn't pay much attention to science, and why there is wide-spread misunderstanding of what science means.

Most Americans have never met a scientist, and despite having been "taught science" at school, most have no real idea of how a scientific consensus is reached through continuous open debate and experiment.

I couldn't agree more, and I'm also an advocate for one of his proposed solutions:

Every adult should have a base of scientific understanding about how the world works. But understanding the process through which scientific knowledge develops is equally critical. By the end of any introductory college science class--which can be an adult's final exposure to science--a student should have a realistic understanding of the nature of science.

I would go a step further: there's no reason to wait until college. Many students become jaded about science in high school, and besides, there's no reason that only the college educated should have this understanding. I've mentioned before that I think it's critical to teach high school biology with an eye towards the process and the history, but the same argument can be made for all scientific disciplines. Telling students how something works as if the knowledge descended from on high doesn't build in the critical-thinking required to evaluate the anti-science and pseudo-science they're exposed to later. But I think that understanding the process goes a long way towards credibility, and makes it more interesting to boot.

Alberts also advocates more focus on public outreach, and this is already beginning to happen. Academic graduate school programs (at least in biology, I don't know about other fields) have traditionally trained students for one purpose: continuing in academia. And other pursuits (like biotech, law, and government to name a few) are in some cases actively shunned. But here at Harvard, there's been some movement on an effort to build other career goals into the culture. I'll hopefully have more to report on that in the new year, but suffice it to say that public outreach is going to be a major push. And I strongly doubt Harvard is alone in this.

I do have to quibble on one point though. He concludes by saying:

The environment in which decisions are made in a democracy will always be highly politicized, but it is crucial that both sides of any argument pay close attention both to what science knows and how that knowledge has been gained. Attaining this goal in every nation will require that scientists vigorously reach out to their communities, informing them not only about their new discoveries, but also about the path they took to get there.

It seems pretty disingenuous to pen a lengthy argument on the merits of public outreach and then post it behind a paywall that ensures that the vast majority of the public does not have access to. Nature did the same thing earlier this year.* Until these journals themselves make more effort to increase public exposure to science, I don't think they're in a position to tell others to do so (even if they're right).


*Ironically, I left a comment on the article making this point on Nature's website and it was flagged as spam. The paywall on that Nature piece has since been lowered, but my comment (it was the first one) was never restored.