An investigative report this week showing that the Florida governor's office under Republican Rick Scott ordered the state's Department of Environmental Protection to strike "global warming," "climate change," and "sustainability" from its official lexicon is but the latest in a string of recent events highlighting the challenge the United States faces from the politicization of science.
It appears in many forms: political appointees altering words or omitting them in formal scientific assessments; groups on the right and left launching open-records act broadsides that can in some cases amount to little more than fishing expeditions; researchers whose expertise policymakers want to tap but whose efforts to accommodate them cross a line between setting out options and advocacy for specific policies.
The politicization of science isn't new. But it appears to be intensifying, science-policy specialists say. Politics in general are becoming more polarized. Increasingly complex fields, such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, as well as climate change, carry higher levels of uncertainty than politicians and the public expect.
Moreover, with the rise of social media, "we're in a era where anyone can pretend to be an expert on any topic," says Michael Halpern, program manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy.
Amid the cacophony, it can be "much more difficult to distinguish between who has independent expertise," he says.
Some level of politicization is inevitable in a democracy, science-policy specialists acknowledge. But they add that as it increases, so does the risk that the public will lose confidence in the input science can provide on important policy questions. That loss of confidence not only could lead to poor policy decisions by also could undermine public funding for science, which has been an important driver for economic growth.
If science-as-political-football prompts people give up on the idea that a consensus emerging from a growing body of scientific evidence "is the best available evidence for decisionmaking ... we're basically undermining the very value of the scientific enterprise," says Dietram Scheufele, who studies science policy and science communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
For his part, Governor Scott, who has yet to concede that human-triggered climate change is occurring, has denied issuing any order banning the use of the climate and development terms. Yet the policy clearly permeated the Department of Environmental Protection's culture, according to interviews Tristram Korten, with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, conducted with past and present employees and contractors.
Based on his story, published Sunday in the Miami Herald, the interviews traced the order as far up the political food chain as the department's Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee.
For Florida DEP employees, the ban led to awkward moments as they worked with other groups on issues such as reef conservation, the story indicates.
In North Carolina, consequences can add up to real money. Three years ago, with the backing of advocates for more intense coastal development, the General Assembly enacted legislation that prevents coastal planners from using projections of sea-level rise in charting the future of coastal development. Instead, planners must use historical data on sea-level changes.
Among other, more recent, examples science-policy specialists point to of potholes at the intersection of science and policy:
- House Republicans are working to pass two bills that would affect the make-up and the types of studies the Environmental Protection Agency can use in drafting regulations. Republicans and groups such at the US Chamber of Commerce argue that the bills would provide greater transparency to EPA decisionmaking. Democrats, as well as scientific and environmental groups, have pushed back, arguing that the proposed changes would compromise the agency's ability to apply the best science available to an issue, undermine regulations, and tip the scales on scientific advice toward the industries being regulated.
- In January, activists seeking laws requiring that foods containing genetically modified organisms have filed Freedom of Information Act requests with four universities hosting 14 scientists active in GMO research. The goal is to uncover what the activists suspect is a too-cozy relationship between companies offering GMO products and researchers who also support the use of GMOs. The move, seen as an effort for greater transparency by activists, looks more like harassment to the researchers involved.
- The GMO requests find an echo in last month's effort by US Rep. Raul Grijalva (D) of Arizona requesting documents related to seven scientists who have testified before Congress on global warming and expressed views that to varying degrees either buck or are perceived to buck the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. At issue is any financial ties they may have with the fossil-fuel industry. But the request was worded in a way that casts a wider net than information on funding would have required. Colleagues and scientific organizations pushed back, citing the chilling effect such broad requests could have on academic freedom. The letters prompted rebukes from the American Geophysical Union and a strongly worded statement from the American Meteorological Society to that effect. Representative Grijalva has since acknowledged that the original request went too far. He remains committed to gathering information on funding sources for the seven scientists.
Where some see these and other examples as evidence of a war on science, others suggest something more fundamental often is at work – a clash among people holding competing sets of values on issues where science touches on regulating new technologies or responding to environmental or public-health issues. Those engaged in the clash try to marshal scientific results – reached through studies of varying degrees of rigor – to support their positions.
"A crisp way to put it is something like: A war on science usually is a war of values," says Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
But she quickly adds that the war analogy is unproductive; in its own way, it reflects an attempt to frame debates in ways that define good guys and bad guys in a particular way.
In the case of weighing regulations on technologies such as genetically modified organisms, "it denigrates genuine arguments on the precautionary side" that would counsel a go-slow approach, she explains.
On a complex topic like climate change, the war metaphor lacks "a human respect for people who are worried, not about whether climate change is anthropogenic, but about the value of incurring costs to deal with it and its uncertainties when more immediate issues compete for that money," Dr. Jasanoff says.
Indeed, complexity is one of the factors driving the politicization of science, notes Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and a former US House of Representatives staff member focusing on research-and-development issues.
Politics-as-usual "is intersecting with the science of complex systems in a world where our view of science is the science of simple systems," he says.
When highly complex systems – such as global climate – are involved, many people "expect science to offer the same same kind of authority to deliver certainty that it has for simple systems" when that isn't the case, he explains. Those misplaced expectations get drawn into politics.
Moreover, even after a scientific consensus appears, based on a growing body of independent lines of evidence, the consensus will virtually always have its holdouts or researchers proposing alternatives, whether the subject is the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, continental drift due to plate tectonics, or the inflationary big-bang theory of the origin of the universe.
Debates over the toxicity of a given chemical in the environment "never go away and they never will. Unless it's so obvious that everybody knows it anyway, you'll likely debate that until the cows come home," Dr. Sarewitz observes.
Another factor contributing to the pace of politicization of science, some analysts suggest, is the challenge of figuring out whose voices to trust.
"None of us have the time or wherewithal or the ability to sort through all of what we get from the fire hose on all the different issues that confront us," says The Union of Concerned Scientists' Mr. Halpern.
That hunt can seem more difficult when scientists' own biases are taken into account.
One hint of that bias comes from a study published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research several years ago, notes the University of Wisconsin's Dr. Scheufele, a member of the study's research team.
The team polled a national sample of the most prominent researchers working in nanotechnology to gauge their views on the risks, benefits, and need for regulations on various aspects of their field.
After controlling for a range of other factors – perception of risks and benefits, gender, length of time working in the field, the sub-discipline they work in – Scheufele and colleagues still found "a significant impact of their personal ideological views on their stances on regulation," Scheufele says.
Scientists who were economic conservatives were more likely to look askance at the need for regulations than their more-liberal counterparts.
The results mirror those of studies that explore the influence of social, cultural, or political values on people's stances on science-related policies or attitudes toward well-established scientific theories.
In the end, the objectivity that science strives to achieve "isn't created by individual scientists being free from bias," Arizona State's Sarewitz says. "'It's created in the intellectual marketplace where ideas compete with each other and where you're clear about the value disputes versus disputes over what counts as a fact."
Moreover, American's scientific enterprise itself has become so deeply sewn into the nation's economic and political fabric that it has become a presence in the halls of power in its own right – with more than $66 billion in federal research money as skin in the game.
"People who think science is not a lobby should look more closely," says Harvard's Jasanoff, noting that the incoming executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is Rush Holt Jr., a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey as well as a physicist.
These and other factors are layered over what Jasanoff notes is a general political culture in the US steeped in sorting out issues through open public debate.
Making headway on crafting sound policies with a scientific component in an increasingly polarized political climate appears daunting. It requires that more scientists and the public both step out of their social or cultural comfort zones.
For researchers, particularly in fields with potential policy implications, the pathway isn't new: It's discussing their work with the public before work in field becomes an issue, Scheufele notes. And the discussions should be clear on what science can address – the current state of knowledge, the options available, and the potential consequences of those options – and what it can't, which are the values people apply as they weigh options and the risks they may pose.
Speaking with non-scientific audiences might have been a choice five to 10 years ago, he says, but "it's an absolute necessity now."
The moment synthetic biology really creates life in the lab in more than one-off experiments, "we will have highly politicized discussions," he says. "They will come to us whether we like it or not."
Members of the public have a role to play as well, Scheufele adds, by mixing with people who don't see the issues in the same way they do. Research indicates that in anticipation of mingling with those who don't share a common view, or whose views are unknown, people tend to think through their positions more carefully, trying to anticipate push-back they could encounter as they express their views.
In the end, people may not change their minds, but the process tends to offset, at least for a while, the influences that social or cultural pressures can have in biasing a person's viewpoint.
It's important to get all stakeholders together, Jasanoff says. "Let them sort out what mix of facts and values will suit them. Don't stand back and say: First we must solve the issue of facts. People will fight to the death over what is a fact."