'Science court' would tackle knotty technological issues

Scene: A lecture auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley. Persona: On the podium, two research biologists on opposite sides of an engineering professor who appears to be in charge. In the front row of the audience, about a dozen graduate students. Scattered in the rest of the seats, a number of people who are clearly guests or observers.

Scenario: The biologists are ''case managers'' representing opposing views in the controversy over whether residents in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, N.Y., suffered harm from toxic chemicals dumped in the area over a period of years. The professor is a ''referee'' as the two scientists challenge each other on specific questions of fact and try to find some areas of agreement. The graduate students are ''judges,'' who may inject their own questions into the exchange and may be called upon to write some ''opinions'' at the end of the session.

The subject is hotly controversial, the case managers are sincerely committed to their points of view. Their questions and ripostes are often stinging, but their respect for each other as professionals keeps the heated dialogue from becoming overheated. The referee keeps the debate on track, never losing sight of the objective - to agree on as many facts as possible about the Love Canal contamination and its possible effects.

After two three-hour sessions, this ''science court'' produces 11 statements of fact upon which the two sides, and the judges, can agree.

The complex Love Canal issue may have been moved a few steps toward resolution, although this science court has been experimental - part of a 10 -week course at UC-Berkeley conducted by the ''referee,'' Arthur Kantrowitz, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

It is part of a 20-year quest by Dr. Kantrowitz, who is determined to help establish a process by which the scientific community can help the public and politicians resolve perplexing technological issues such as disposal of toxic chemicals, the scuttling of old nuclear submarines in the ocean, and the sources and effects of acid rain.

Since the early 1960s, Dr. Kantrowitz, a pioneer in the field of fluid mechanics who was in the US space program when the moon shots were being planned , has urged development of a process that has come to be known as the science court. Such a forum, he argues, could ''bring the discipline (that) the scientific community utilizes in its own discussions'' to the weighing of tough governmental choices brought about by advancing technology.

It could also replace, he says, partisan public debate by physical scientists - often representing special interests or ''value systems'' - with reasoned, productive dialogue such as those same adversaries conduct in the relative privacy of their scientific journals and meetings.

The issue as to whether toxic wastes deposited in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, N.Y., had produced harmful effects on later residents was not decided. But the 11 points of agreement reached in public debate could have, in a real situation, made the ultimate decision of responsible agencies easier and perhaps more equitable, Kantrowitz says.

On unresolved points, student judges submitted opinions on the merits of each side's arguments. In the kind of science court envisioned by Kantrowitz, those opinions would be binding on no one. They could, however, be explored by a future court.

Despite the concept's endorsement by three US presidents (Ford, Carter, and Reagan), their science advisers, many other officials, and a large segment of the scientific-technological community, a formal science court has never been convened.

In 1976 a science and technology task force held a ''Colloqium on the Science Court'' in Leesburg, Va. While he says many who discussed the idea at that meeting strongly favored it, Kantrowitz advised against specific recommendations at that time - and none were issued.

Asked why there was no specific follow-up, he said that there was a change in administrations a few months later and, although candidate Jimmy Carter had endorsed the science court, President Carter's administration did not pursue the idea.

The science court concept is ''a complex idea'' that could be difficult to implement, says Jack Renirie of the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. One challenge, he says, would be in finding ''unbiased experts'' to participate in the courts.

Another reason why there has not been a stronger push to convene science courts, says Kantrowitz, is that many members of the scientific ''elite'' resist it. This group includes scientists who often appear in congressional hearings and other forums as expert witnesses; many who are consultants, stockholders, or even heads of firms with particular interests in technological developments and policies; and those with political motives.

''The elite is not always wrong,'' says Kantrowitz, ''but we need additional expertise. . . .''

The Berkeley classes ''added a lot more knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of the procedure,'' Kantrowitz says. He has returned to Dartmouth, where he plans to write a book on his findings which he says should be ready for publication in about a year.

Kantrowitz does not suggest, at this point, that the science court concept be ''institutionalized'' by government. But he says it ''would be helpful'' if a major university - perhaps UC-Berkeley - decided to organize one.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.