Getting Our Act Together
Several of the articles in this issue look beyond specific policy debates to the larger question of the definition of science policy (in the broad sense that includes technology and health policy). The question deserves to be discussed, and it raises the related issue of whether there exists an organized science, technology, and health policy community within which this discussion can take place.
Daniel Sarewitz bemoans the incredible shrinking vista of science policy, which too often focuses exclusively on the federal research budget. In the course of pointing out that the long-term stability of government R&D spending suggests that this is a debate without a difference, he also observes that Congress’s Rube Goldberg committee structure and budget process make it virtually impossible to have a debate about the fundamental issues that should be part of science policy. He makes a compelling case that the real science policy discussion should not be about “how much,” but about “what for.”
Ronald Sandler and Christopher J. Bosso see the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as an opportunity to take a prospective approach to regulating a new technology and to implement an expansive vision of science policy that encompasses not just health and environmental effects but a broad swath of social and economic outcomes that could accompany the development of an important new technology.
Science policy, to use the shorthand designation, is a discipline that is still in its adolescence. Most science policy professionals were trained in other disciplines, in part because there were no science policy programs when they went to school. This motley mix of philosophers, economists, physicians, attorneys, engineers, political scientists, chemists, historians, and who knows what else has managed to create an intellectual subculture that somehow manages to provide insight to decisionmakers about how developments in science, technology, and medicine should inform public policy and private actions. But the field has yet to form itself into a well-defined intellectual or professional community. Just as Congress has failed to create the forum for discussion of basic science policy issues, the community of practitioners and scholars has yet to create the stage on which critical discussions can occur.
Some people think they remember a golden age of science policy following World War II and continuing through the space race, an era in which Vannevar Bush provided a coherent vision and scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer were taken seriously by policymakers. And although it is true that the atomic bomb and the race to the moon provided cachet, at least for nuclear physicists and a few aerospace engineers in the corridors of power, this was not a time of broad-based science policy preeminence. It was a time when a simplistic linear model of innovation was accepted and before the appearance of thorny concerns about industrial policy, intellectual property rights for university researchers, the emergence of universities as significant players in commercial technology, and the hornet’s nest of bioethical issues that have emerged with the revolution in biology. Our understanding of what falls under the rubric of science policy has expanded immensely, and we can now see that the golden age was actually just a simpler time.
Today’s complexity is reflected in the number of organizations that participate in some aspect of science policy. The White House has an Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the president has a bioethics council and a council of advisors on science and technology. The National Research Council (NRC) conducts a few hundred science policy studies a year with its stable of volunteer experts, and a few dozen universities have programs in science policy, science and society, or specific areas such as environmental policy. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosts an annual policy conference in Washington, and there is even a Gordon Research Conference in science policy that meets every two years. Numerous other professional groups, think tanks, and advocacy organizations also play an active role in science policy.
Yet in many ways there is no there there. OSTP is not perceived as a power center in the west wing. The NRC is widely respected and influential, but most of its work is driven by outside requests from Congress or the administration. The AAAS meeting focuses heavily on the federal budget. The Gordon Conference has a broad focus but has yet to attract broad participation from all corners of the science policy world. No focal point exists for this diffuse amalgam of science policy activities, and no focal point exists for science policy. Specialists in agriculture policy rarely interact with colleagues in health policy. The ethicists and philosophers have little interaction with the economists. Although there is wide recognition that science is a pervasive influence throughout society, that critical policy decisions must take into account a complex variety of perspectives and types of expertise, and that many of the problems facing humanity will be solved with coordinated multidimensional efforts, we have yet to develop the structures within government or the integrated network outside government that would make it possible to approach problems with the necessary combination of intellectual resources.
Sandler and Bosso argue that the NNI provides an opportunity to take a truly comprehensive approach to understanding the social context and possible repercussions of the development and introduction of a powerful new technology. No doubt the NNI program managers are wondering where they would find the time and resources to do anything with nanotechnology if they have to tackle, in Sandler and Bosso’s words, “unequal access to resources and opportunities, institutionalized and non-institutionalized discrimination, differential social and political power, corporate influence and lack of accountability, inadequate governmental capacity to fulfill regulatory mandates, challenges to individual rights and autonomy, marginalization of non-economic values, technology control and oversight, the role of technology in creating and solving problems, and, more generally, those aspects of our society and institutions that fail to meet reasonable standards of justice.”
The problem is not that these considerations are irrelevant to the introduction of a new technology, it is that it is a staggering burden to assign this task to a single program, even one as large as NNI. We should be having this discussion on a larger stage. Progress in all areas of science, technology, and medicine can have powerful effects throughout society. If there were an organized science policy community, people from many disciplines and areas of expertise could be sharing ideas and experiences; those charged with looking at the possible repercussions of a specific technology could then draw on this body of knowledge and wisdom.
We need to create a more coherent science policy community that is building this core body of knowledge, one that incorporates theory and practice, that is alert to the importance of value judgments in many of these areas, that is available to practitioners confronting specific policy problems, and that is constantly evolving to incorporate new insights from all the disciplines that participate in science policy. Many of the people working in science policy see themselves as more than technocrats. They need to find a way to work together. They will not only become more productive technocrats; they will become a significant part of the larger community of public intellectuals. Science, technology, and medicine are key drivers in human development, and those who best understand these forces should be key players in setting humanity’s course.