Science and Politics: Don't Give Up

Many scientists in the United States who staunchly opposed a second presidential term for George W. Bush were probably in a somewhat less-than-festive mood during the inauguration in Washington earlier this month.

By | January 31, 2005

Many scientists in the United States who staunchly opposed a second presidential term for George W. Bush were probably in a somewhat less-than-festive mood during the inauguration in Washington earlier this month. Some were likely thinking, as were other observers, that an opulent $40 million party – that's excluding the costs of security – seems inappropriate while the nation is at war and an entire region has been devastated by a tsunami.

These thoughts, however, should not prevent such scientists from looking forward, or encourage them to wring their hands and write off the next four years. Groups such as Scientists and Engineers for Change have engaged in a noble and important effort to educate the public about scientific issues. Their work was pegged to the presidential election, but it should continue apace.

One way for scientists to remain involved is to serve on governmental advisory committees. Here, too, scientists may feel frustrated that their opinions are welcome only when they agree with those of the administration.

Those feelings of anger and frustration were vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences. In a report released just after the presidential election, the Academy said that it was "inappropriate" for administration officials to ask scientists being considered for federal government advisory committees about their political affiliations, voting records, or positions on particular policies.1

The administration may reject this advice and continue to politicize appointments. In that case, Republican scientists – and yes, they're out there2 – are well-poised to step up to the plate. But scientists who dislike the current administration's policies shouldn't lose heart and should take a longer view. Most of you reading this will still be practicing science once President Bush is no longer president, and it takes some time to gain the recognition necessary to make it onto a scientific advisory panel. Make moves now that would set you on that path. Write op-eds. Contact your university's public affairs office about being available to discuss science policy when reporters call. Above all, read everything you can about policies being debated, and stay informed.

These efforts should not be restricted to US scientists. On page 37 of this issue, Anne Harding highlights some of the science policy issues that are sure to make headlines in 2005. Funding, stem cells, and red tape figure prominently from India to Ireland.

Earlier this month, the UN Millennium Project released its report to Secretary General Kofi Annan. One of the project's 10 task forces devoted an entire chapter to advising governments on science, technology, and innovation.3

"Governments can improve the policy environment at the national level by promoting institutions such as an Office of Science Advisor to provide science and technology advice to political leaders," the task force writes. "Advice should be delivered through transparent and systematic processes that combine technical knowledge provided by institutions such as scientific and engineering academies with wider consultations based on democratic practices. International organizations, including the Office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, need to create similar offices."

Thats a good start.


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