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Building Closer Relations Between Science and Policymakers

The science community has made significant strides over the last three decades in building stronger relationships with policymakers and the public but challenges remain.

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The science community has made significant strides over the last three decades in building stronger relationships with policymakers and the public, but challenging issues and a difficult financial climate require that it work constantly to maintain and improve those relationships, experts said in symposium at AAAS.

“Science and technology are embedded in every major issue of modern life, either as a cause or as a cure... ” said AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner. “That means that we in the scientific community have an obligation and an opportunity to influence what happens to those issues by bringing science into the policy process.”

The relationship between the scientific community and political leaders has been a roller coaster. While that relationship currently is better than with the previous administration, Leshner said, “I believe the causes of tension—political and economic convenience and conflict with core human values—have not actually gone away.” That is because scientific findings often can be “politically or economically inconvenient,” or represent disagreement on moral questions such as when life begins.

Leshner was speaking at a symposium, “The State of Science Policy,” held 15 December at AAAS, to honor Al Teich on his retirement from the association. Teich came to AAAS in 1980 from a decade in academia as a political scientist. He expected to stay two or three years, but found that he liked working in science policy. Starting with only pencils, desktop calculators, and typewriters, he helped to transform the field; as director of Science and Policy Programs, he became the single person most responsible for making science policy, in his words, “the lifeblood of this organization.”

Others who spoke included Irwin Feller, professor emeritus of economics at Pennsylvania State University; Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant U.S. secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs; and Kei Koizumi, former director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program and now assistant director for federal research and development with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

While each of the speakers offered different perspectives on the relationship between science and policy, all agreed that maintaining and improving the relationship is essential. “Old questions in new settings require new evidence-based answers,” said Feller.

Much of the science policy framework “is based upon the intellectual heritage that dates back to the late 1950s and early 1960s,” he said. But it doesn’t answer the policy questions of how much and where investments in basic research should be directed. Nor does it adequately take into account a changed contextual environment of increased transparency and accountability, and the greater complexity of questions that require team-based collaboration across fields and often across national borders.

For Feller, one crucial component for creating more rational science policy investment is to build into the process a better sense of how scientists view themselves, and how they might function differently if the incentives and organizational structures were to change.

“Eventually it comes down to communicating, getting the policymakers and the persons doing the work together,” Feller said. “The research community has to get its act that it can show that it has an impact that is both scientifically valid and policy-relevant.”

One milestone in the evolution of science policy was the “Contract with America,” which thrust U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, into the position of speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995. That effort to balance the federal budget would have slashed R&D by a third, said Kei Koizumi, then a new hire in the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program (Koizumi stressed that he was offering personal views, and not speaking for OSTP).

The scientific community mobilized “to articulate better the value of a federal investment in research,” he said. That experience “changed behavior within the scientific community; [now] we are much better organized and appreciate much better the need to keep communicating the impact of these investments.

“It is up to the [research] community, especially broad associations such as AAAS and research universities, to make the link between a federal agency’s mission and programs and the health of the broad U.S. science and engineering enterprise,” he said. “Agencies don’t naturally think about fields of science or disciplines, but we do.”

It is crucial for the scientific community to think broadly about the balance needed between fields of study, he said. “The community has the power to change that policy in ways that may not be obvious to all policymakers.”

Koizumi said the question of the optimal mix of research and development “is rethought and redebated every year.” As the U.S. economy becomes more interconnected with the world economy and the benefits of R&D flow transnationally, he believes those debates will become more complex. The challenge will be to adjust to those changing conditions.

One way the federal government has adapted is by strengthening its international capacity in science and technology, said Jones, a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. Jones said domestic and international science and technology are inextricably linked, which is why we need to stay engaged internationally. She called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “the most complex example of the science-public policy interface.” It is crucial, she said, that scientists continue to step forward to take on this difficult work of providing objective data and analysis under intense scrutiny.

Jones also highlighted the changes that have occurred over the past 25 years, noting the increases in science and technology agreements with other countries, increases in the number of U.S. universities overseas campuses, and budget changes. She also emphasized the increasing science and technology capacity at the Department of State, citing the establishment of the position of the science and technology adviser to the secretary, the growth in science positions across the Department, and the increase in the number of Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellows. Over the past three decades, the number of fellows at the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has grown from 4 to 80.