Should Scientists Participate In Public Policy?

Scientists can help steer public-policy decisions. However, in the process, they may damage their careers or malign the public confidence in science. The debate over whether scientists should have a political voice was fueled Jan. 15, 1999, when the American Medical Assoc. fired the long-time editor of JAMA because of his decision to publish a politically timed article. Mary Jo Nye, science history professor at Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR; 541-737-1308), discussed the science/politics debate last week during the annual AAAS meeting.

AAAS Speech Summary
AMA Decision
History Of The Science/Politics Debate

AAAS Speech Summary (Back to Top)

As the 20th century draws to a close, scientists are under increasing pressure—and some say, obligation—to use their research data and their status to influence public policy. Nye discussed the pros and cons of this debate during the George Sarton Memorial Lecture at the annual meeting of the American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science (AAAS; Anaheim, CA; Jan. 24, 1999).

During her speech, Nye explained that scientists who choose to take public stands on issues risk a number of attacks. While members of the public question the objectivity and neutrality of politically outspoken researchers, fellow scientists dispute their interpretation of data, or feel that science and politics should not mix. When scientists argue publicly over data, or accuse each other of partiality, public confidence in science can be undermined, she says.

AMA Decision (Back to Top)

This debate became front-page news when the American Medical Assoc. (AMA; Chicago), fired George Lundberg, the 14th head of the Journal of the American Medical Assoc. (JAMA), for publishing an article that was timed to coincide with the impeachment proceedings in the U.S. Senate. The article, based upon a 1991 Kinsey Institute survey, discussed the public impression of what constitutes having "had sex."

In a letter to members of the AMA, E. Ratcliffe Anderson, Jr., AMA executive VP, explained the dismissal: "Dr. Lundberg, through his recent actions, has threatened the historic tradition and integrity of the Journal of the American Medical Association by inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine. This is unacceptable."

Although the AMA took this strict approach to separating science and politics, Nye says that scientists have a duty to participate in the debate. If scientists do not become involved in public-policy debates, she says, the result can be a decision-making process involving complex, critical issues that aren't fully understood.

"Scientists have come to feel a social and political responsibility to bring scientific and technical data to the public in order to influence decisions on complicated matters of national and global significance," Nye says. "These are not only questions of war and peace...but of specific strategies for armament and disarmament, for nuclear energy and nuclear waste, for endangered species and natural habitats, and for global temperature change," Nye says.

Nye is the Horning Professor of Humanities at Oregon State University, which is the alma mater of the late Linus Pauling, the only individual to win two unshared Nobel Prizes. Pauling was one major 20th century scientist who discovered the rewards, and hazards, of taking a public stand on a controversial issue and of arguing with fellow scientists in public, Nye says.

Pauling's efforts to halt the testing of atomic weapons garnered him the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, but also earned the wrath of fellow scientists and the alienation of some academic and government leaders.

History Of The Science/Politics Debate (Back to Top)

The chasm separating science and politics first began to close during World War I, when chemists became involved in their respective governments' efforts to create chemical weapons. Several scientists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean became involved, either in protesting the war or signing manifestos defending their country's actions.

A small group of scientists led by Albert Einstein advocated that scientists band together and not become involved in war-related research or governmental advocacy. "When the war ended, though, most of these scientists went back to doing what they were doing before the war, which usually was unrelated," Nye says.

A second major phase that brought scientists into the public arena occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, when the stock market had crashed and Fascism was on the rise. A handful of scientists led by Paul Langevin and Jean Perrin took on highly visible roles in socialist, anti-fascist, and pacifist organizations—all committed toward improving the lives of the working class.

"Politically, it was very much a 'campaign for science,'" Nye says, "which stressed the need for broader scientific education, increased funding for scientific research, and better coordination of fundamental and applied research. The assumption was that socialism was better for science than was capitalism or fascism."

At the same time, a group of left-wing scientists in Britain began writing newspaper and magazine articles, and organizing fellow scientists to discuss their responsibilities to improve education and industry as well as science. Then during World War II, the Manhattan Project and other war-related research took the question of scientific involvement to a new level, Nye says. Questions arose as to whether scientists should study atomic energy for military use—and whether new research findings should be kept secret or shared. Once the atomic bomb was developed and used, would the United States share the technology, and with which countries?

"Much of the debate focused on an Atomic Energy Commission, which surely would be set up after the war," Nye says. "The big question was: would it be run by civilians, in which it likely would be open? Or by the military, which would keep the research secret. This fear of atomic weapons, and the pervasive atmosphere of distrust, was the very origin of the Cold War."

The arguments continued after the war, spurred on by fear of an escalating arms race. Like Pauling, British physicist P.M.S. Blackett played a visible, and highly controversial role. A respected scientist, Blackett had earlier argued—behind closed doors—that Britain should not enter the arms race and that the Untied States and Britain should trust the Soviet Union. He lost on both accounts.

"So Blackett took his argument to the public," Nye says. "He published a book analyzing military strategy and claimed that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had changed the way military leaders would wage war, prompting them to use strategic bombing instead of 'conventional warfare.'"

Nye says that Blackett believed such bombing was effective at destroying cities, but ineffective at winning wars. He provided in-depth arguments outlining the bombs' "explosive power," or TNT equivalent, and other technical data.

"Regardless of whether you agreed with his reasoning, Blackett did one thing that stood out—he brought technical arguments into the public forum and prompted scientists to publicly debate research data," Nye says. And now, she says, there is no going back.

"The 20th century has seen scientists who have taken their expertise and reputations into public forums inevitably risk censure both from within and without the scientific community," Nye says. "And there may be risks to the public's confidence in science when scientists bring into public discussion technical matters on which experts themselves cannot agree, and on which non-experts feel free to express an opinion. But in the long run, some notable scientists have thought the perils are worth the risks."

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By Laura Vandendorpe