In a wide-ranging conversation, a panel of science policy makers and scholars attempt to diagnose why both politicians and the public disagree on scientific issues.

On Jan. 27, George Washington University (GWU) hosted a panel discussion entitled “Is Science On Trial? Science, Politics, and the 2016 Election,” moderated by Science magazine news correspondent Jeffrey Mervis. The panel included former Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Allison Macfarlane, director of GW’s Center for International Science & Technology Policy and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Dahlia Sokolov, minority staff director of the House Science Committee’s Research and Technology Subcommittee; Al Teich, professor of science and technology policy at GWU; and Benjamin Zycher, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

After telling the audience he hoped the discussion would be “entertaining, informative, and a little unsettling,” Mervis kicked off the conversation by citing a recent Pew poll which revealed that many factors other than political ideologysuch as age, gender, religion, and racealso influence people’s beliefs about scientific issues. Given that “politics doesn’t always rule,” Mervis asked the panel to diagnose reasons why both politicians and the public often disagree on certain scientific issues, such as the extent of consensus about climate change, the safety of genetically-modified organisms, and the safety of vaccines. He also asked them to explain how people should react to competing claims that both are seemingly backed by scientific evidence.

Macfarlane pointed out that most science policy issues cannot be settled by science alone and require consideration of other factors such as cultural values and economic interests. She also noted that scientists are sometimes guilty of creating an expectation that science can provide definitive answers to societal problems. Holt attributed some of the blame to the U.S. education system, which is designed to teach science in a way that prepares potential future scientists. This approach, he argued, does not necessarily prepare the majority of students to effectively interpret scientific evidence. Holt has been outspoken in the past about the importance of teaching all students science in a way that “is directed toward developing a reverence for evidence.”

Zycher, on the other hand, argued that in situations where there is competing evidence, such as mixed indications of the effectiveness of the Head Start program, the federal government should take a lesser role and allow the states to experiment more with alternative approaches. This, he said, allows more evidence to build up over time which eventually becomes too hard to ignore.

Mervis pivoted the conversation to focus on politicians, asking if the abolishment of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) has made it harder for Congress to understand scientific issues. Holt, who attempted to reestablish OTA numerous times during his 16-year tenure in Congress, argued that it “raised the level of the debate,” saved much more money than it cost, and produced many reports that were the most authoritative policy documents on certain subjects for decades.

Mervis then asked the panelists to explain why the effort by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) to require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to certify individual grants as being in the “national interest” has been so controversial. Zycher said he was puzzled at the controversy, claiming that adding this language to statue would not change anything. Holt, Macfarlane, and Sokolov all strongly disagreed with this assessment.

Holt and Macfarlane pointed to examples where Congress has prevented certain types of research via legislation, such as the ban on use of federal funds for gun violence research. Sokolov asserted that the political context of Smith’s effort is why the scientific community is so concerned about the relatively innocuous-sounding language. In an environment where individual grants are “called up and mocked one by one by one.every word matters,” she said, adding that she would be more receptive to having NSF certify that its portfolios of research are in the national interest rather than individual grants.

Ending with the 2016 election, Mervis asked panelists to reflect on why presidential candidates rarely talk about scientific subjects, with the recent Canadian election being an exception. Panelists noted a few instances of science appearing on the 2016 campaign trail, such as Donald Trump’s expression of doubt about the safety of vaccines in the first Republican debate and comments by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on a scientific consensus about the need to combat climate change.

Zycher called the lack of rebuttal to Trump’s comments by two other Republican candidates, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ben Carson, both medical doctors, irresponsible, however he also dismissed Sanders’s comments as merely repeating an “ideological stance.” He asserted that among the presidential candidates of either party, only Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has truly engaged in the actual science by holding a hearing on climate science. Earlier, Zycher also questioned the magnitude of human impact on climate change, leading to a tense exchange between him and Macfarlane.

If the audience did not know it already, they certainly left with an understanding that even policy scholars are not immune from debate about scientific issues.

Mitch Ambrose
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics