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ACS News

December 12, 2005
Volume 83, Number 50
p. 30

COMMENT

Science and Policy: Who Speaks for Science?

Jurgen H. Exner, Chair, Joint Board-Council Committee on Environmental Improvement

"Unless someone like you …” One of the favorite books that my young sons enjoyed reading and rereading was “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. The mythical title figure arose to take on the responsibility of speaking for the wondrous trees and animals inhabiting this environmental fable. Today I wonder: Who speaks for science? In our fast-moving society, speaking out for science on policy issues in a timely and urgent manner has become increasingly critical.

My participation in the activities of the American Chemical Society Joint Board-Council Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) during the past few years has led to a greater awareness of ACS efforts at educating the public and Congress about the importance of science in formulating public policy. CEI has examined global warming, the precautionary principle, fuel additives, energy policy, and sustainable chemical enterprise, among a number of environmental scientific and policy issues. On some of these, CEI reached consensus on the state of the science, which ACS approved as policy statements. Although primarily focused on science, examination of these topics invariably included discussion of value judgments and political concerns. Often, arriving at recommendations required many years of committee study.

In our fast-moving society, speaking out for science on policy issues in a timely and urgent manner has become increasingly critical

For example, our first step in the climate-change examination was to assess the consensus of peer-reviewed research. In the course of this undertaking, we learned of attempts to misrepresent the scientific consensus, to suppress comment from government scientists, to manipulate and modify advisory board reports, to promote selective or false data, and to magnify uncertainty in the science of this issue. To people trained in the scientific method, additional experiments are the desirable method of reducing uncertainty. Questioning of consensus is encouraged. The existence of scientific uncertainty and questioning—in short, the scientific method—is often mischaracterized by some as searching for “sound science,” with the assertion that science is adrift on a specific issue.

“Sound science” tends to become a catchphrase to justify postponement of action. Such a delay may be warranted if key data in the area of concern remain unavailable. In the case of a potentially devastating outcome, the “precautionary principle” can be useful. As presented by environmental advocates and many European Union leaders, this approach suggests that we err on the side of caution. If critical scientific information is missing, a schedule, path of action, and source of funding must be suggested to obtain that information within a reasonable time. Therefore, waiting for sound science does not justify inaction on major issues that can have a drastic, negative impact on the world. Global warming comes to mind.

An action more corrosive than delay in the science/policy area was introduced by Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) last summer. His congressional committee requested a large amount of supporting data, in a very short time frame, from an active researcher in the area of climate change. Many in the scientific community interpreted this request as an attempt to make scientific inquiry and peer review answerable to congressional committees and their investigatory staff. Some interpreted it as a thinly veiled intimidation of advocates of global warming. Within three weeks, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued strongly worded objections. ACS and 25 other scientific organizations’ objections appeared much later. The lesson: It is imperative to speak out quickly on important issues. ACS can do this.

Scientists often speak of the peer review process as the fundamental procedure for iterating toward scientific truth. Peer review is so ingrained in scientists’ thought processes that it is easy to forget that it is unfamiliar to those outside of science. Nonscientists may even consider it as an insider’s method to work within its own system and on its own playing field. We must explain this process, and, yes, reveal some of the imperfections that invariably result from the involvement in the process by human beings. We must also teach the critical thinking process of science to our children and the public—from the collection of data and the development of theories to the iterative refinement of theories based on facts.

On controversial scientific subjects, there is a tendency to defer to NAS studies. These prestigious panels are recognized for their diversity and serious purpose in examining scientific topics. But these detailed reviews often are lengthy. Why can’t the ACS committees address some of these issues in a preliminary manner within a much shorter time frame? This approach may require forming task forces and bringing their members together for specific, timely discussion of issues rather than awaiting the twice-yearly, normal committee meetings. The extra costs would be well worth the effort if they increase the strength of ACS as a voice for science.

A technologically advanced society requires quality information for policy decisions and an understanding by the public on how this information is obtained. It requires technical experts. Our long-term competitiveness and standard of living depend on it. We must encourage our scientists to communicate. We must strengthen the ACS Legislative Action Network and the scientific information we provide to Congress. ACS must speak more quickly and strongly for science. Who speaks for science? We all do, but I urge ACS to lead in a timely and forceful manner.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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ACS Comments, which appear in C&EN from time to time, are written by society officers and committee chairs. They are available on C&EN Online at www.cen-online.org/html/acscomments.html. Comments are archived back to 2000.

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