Science and Politics: Improving the Match
JOSHUA LEDERBERG, president emeritus of Rockefeller University in New York City, is bang on when he says "science and politics are a hard match." But the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, of which he is co-chairman, has done a lot to help make that 20th-century marriage work a little more smoothly.
Since 1988, the $10.7-million private project has studied key aspects of the science-government partnership in the United States. It has assembled study panels distinguished by the experience and expertise of their membership. It has issued reports loaded with useful recommendations to improve the way government supports and uses science and technology, promotes science education, and interacts with other countries in scientific enterprises.
For example, before the 1988 election, the commission urged upgrading the office of the presidential science adviser to Cabinet status. It also urged revitalizing the White House science-policy apparatus that had been trashed in earlier administrations. President Bush implemented these recommendations. "The consequences have been salutary," says commission co-chairman William Golden, who is chairman of the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It remains to be seen whether the
Clinton administration will follow last year's commission recommendation that the secretary of state have a comparable science advisory setup.
The commission also is tackling the problem of junk science in the courtroom. Working with the Federal Judicial Center, it is finishing a judicial "sci-tech" reference manual. This will outline techniques judges have successfully used to tell bona-fide experts from hucksters and sort legitimate science from speculation and advocacy bias. It suggests, for example, that judges not try to resolve scientific controversy. Instead, it suggests deciding the admissibility of evidence in the light of answers to t hree simple questions: Can the claim be tested scientifically? If so, has it been tested? If it has been tested, was the methodology sound?
In short, various branches of government concerned with science and technology now have a plethora of sound advice to weigh and implement where appropriate. But the commission also has its blind spots.
It tapped a broad spectrum of advice. Yet its chorus of advisers lacks some significant voices. The US needs to open the way for more of its minority citizens and women to pursue rewarding scientific and engineering careers. There were no women on nearly half of the 17 study panels. The participation of minorities was too slim even to call it "token."
Furthermore, anyone who has followed science policy since World War II would recognize many familiar names among commission members and the working groups. Upcoming young scientists and engineers may well view these gray-haired grandees with the awe reserved for other historic figures. But they don't necessarily share their world view. At a time of great social change and public questioning of the value of science, the commission should bring more nonestablishment thinking to bear on its work.
Curiously, the commission has said little about university scientists, whose once beneficial partnership with government has gone sour. They do much of the country's basic science and engineering research.
But their relationship with government now is marked by increasingly tighter funding and official suspicions of potential financial misconduct and research fraud. Dr. Lederberg has been quoted as saying an attempt to address the problems of university scientists and research universities would have seemed to be special pleading. That's a poor excuse for neglecting what the university community sees as a critical issue.
The Carnegie Commission has shown that a private project can incisively critique an important area of government operations and offer practical advice. But there's plenty of work for a second-generation project to do.