The Rightful Place of Science Policy

This previous post on the goals of neuroscience (and the ensuing flamewar) got me thinking. What is it that I am trying to do?

I'll freely admit it, I am not a scientist. I don't generate testable hypothesis, knowledge about the natural universe, or anythng that can be nailed down with a reasonable degree of certainty. Why then should I be trusted (and publicly funded?). As science policy expert, I believe that I provide a unique skillset and viewpoint for decision-making in the 21st century.

Science policy has two research thrusts: guiding the development of the natural sciences through funding mechanism and other incentives, and understanding and responding to the effects of science and technology on our society. Science does not exist in a vacuum, every it of knowledge or technological artifact has associated social processes, what Sheila Jasanoff calls 'co-production.' The ultimate goal of science policy is to combine the two research thrusts into a means of steering society by favoring certain research paths. Though this seems at anti-democratic, elitist, or even Orwellian, it is the state of the world. We are always making choices vis a vis science policy, even relinquishment or defunding counts as a choice. The work of the science policy professional is to make good choices, in a full understanding of the technosocial context in which they are made, and as broad of public participation as possible.

The origins of science policy as a discipline can be traced back to WW2, where America rapidly mobilized its scientists and engineers to produce war-winning weapons: the proximity fuse, operations research, and the atomic bomb. Vannevar Bush's Office of Scientific Research and Development organized thousands of scientists to turn knowledge towards military ends, but despite its spectacular success, it could only be tempory. Bush ruled in a climate of secrecy and military necessity which justified any decision. The war forced people to work together, and Bush was a managerial genius. The conditions of the OSRD could not be replicated indefinitely, and so Bush moved to create a civilian successor to the OSRD for basic research, the National Science Foundation, and pressed for more scientific expert participation at the highest echelons of government.

Within the decade, spurred on by sputnik terror, Federal science funding had become a permanent part of the political landscape. Dozens of agencies, from the Department of Defense to the National Institutes of Health, funded basic and applied science. Corporate labs served as epicenters of invention in Silicon Valley and along Route 128. But while this era brought forth wonders, science remained a servant only of those wealthy enough to directly support it; the military and high tech. The vast majority of America's scientific output languished in academia. In 1980, Congress fundamentally reorganized science policy with Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed patents for the products of federally funded research. Now, scientists did not need to choose between the public and private sectors, their work could be universally applied. The Federal government took on the role of a basic driver of innovation.

At the same time, citizens became more aware of the role of science and technology in constituting their world. The environmental and anti-nuclear movements exposed people to the hazards of modern technology, while making science itself an object of contention. Neo-luddite responses to computerization, suburbanization, and militarization further mobilized ordinary people and academics to seriously consider the state of science, technology, and society.

We stand now poised at the edge of a great transformation. Convergent technologies in nano, biological, information, and cognitive realms propose to alter and redefine human beings. A combination of population growth and industrialization has placed the planetary ecosystem and resource supply under near critical stress. In this delicate scenario, we can no longer trust to the blind forces of the market to make the best decisions, or leave it entirely in the hermetic hands of a self-selecting technological elite.

Science policy is therefore about making good decisions. It is about a set of intellectual tools that allow you to analyze issues and expose critical elements, consequences, and constituencies in political decisions involving human beings and scientific knowledge. I do not believe that science policy experts should have a preeminent role at the table, that's just as bad as turning decision-making over to politicians, or bankers, or generals, or engineers. Instead, we try and get as many people at the table as possible, as many views to ensure that science is working towards socially desirable ends, that people are not being unjustly excluded, and that there is a full and fair engagement with the future.

The deterministic loop between advances in science, deployment of new technologies, changes in society, and new socially supported science to advance certain ends is an exaggeration. It is impossible to predict the future. But we can give people the tools to make the best decisions they can.

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