Policy & Politics

Drawing the Line Between Science and Politics?

Gwen Ottinger reviews three books on the relationship between science and public policy.

By Gwen Ottinger | May 22, 2010
Congressional office

Scientific decisions take place outside the lab as often as they do inside—in congressional offices and other political venues.


Wiebe E. Bijker, Roland Bal, and Ruud Hendriks. The Paradox of Scientific Authority: The Role of Scientific Advice in Democracies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. viii + 223 pp. $32.

Mark B. Brown. Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. xvi + 354 pp. $56 cloth, $28 paper.

Ann Campbell Keller. Science in Environmental Policy: The Politics of Objective Advice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. xi + 278 pp. $52 cloth, $26 paper.

In what ways should scientists be involved in making public-policy decisions? The question is a difficult one for technologically advanced democratic societies. If scientists do not offer their expert knowledge to the policy process, we risk making ill-informed decisions on technically complex issues. But if scientists play too large a role in defining the issues and their solutions, we risk replacing democratic governance with technocratic control.

The twin specters of uninformed policy and technocracy animate three recent works on science and public policy. In The Paradox of Scientific Authority, Wiebe Bijker, Roland Bal, and Ruud Hendriks ask, “How can scientific advice be effective and influential in an age in which the status of science and/or scientists seems to be as low as it ever has been” (p. 1). Although their study of the Gezondheidsraad, the Health Council of the Netherlands, focuses on the strategies used by scientific advisory panels to ensure that expert knowledge gets incorporated into policy processes, the authors also grapple with the threat of technocracy. They conclude the book with a taxonomy of policy problems that distinguishes those dependent on scientists’ contributions from those demanding broader public engagement.

Ann Keller is similarly concerned with how scientists become effective in policy making in Science in Environmental Policy. Focused on U.S. debates over acid rain and climate change, her study analyzes scientists’ participation in three distinct phases of policy making—agenda setting, legislation, and implementation. For Keller technocracy appears particularly threatening in the agenda-setting phase. She shows that during this phase scientists’ prescriptions about what should be done—especially their suggestions about questions on what future research is needed—are likely to become part of laws without being subjected to significant democratic debate. For example, scientists’ efforts to put acid rain on the legislative agenda resulted in the creation of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, an institution that through its research continued to shape acid-rain policy in the later phases of policy making.

Finally, Mark Brown’s Science in Democracy takes a theoretical approach to the problem of creating scientifically informed, yet democratic, policy. Drawing on political theorists ranging from Machiavelli to John Dewey, Brown suggests that expanding our notions of and institutions for democratic representation to give scientists an important role in policy making still leaves room for substantive contributions by diverse groups of nonscientists.

Boundaries—specifically the boundaries between science and politics—are a central theme in each of these studies. One common answer to the dilemma of incorporating science into democratic policy processes is to separate science and politics. Given a firm boundary between the factual, objective world of science and the value-laden space of political decision making, scientific facts can serve as neutral information to guide public policy—or so the logic goes. But all three books refute this model, denying the possibility of a clean separation between science and politics. Following decades of research in science and technology studies, the authors argue that science necessarily incorporates political values and that negotiation over what science is necessary to inform policy takes place in tandem with negotiation over policy solutions themselves.

While these studies reject the existence of a clear boundary between science and politics, they acknowledge the importance of the ideaof such a boundary. In fact, each of the analyses focuses in one way or another on the efforts by various political actors to build and manage boundaries. Science in Democracy, for example, discusses the political theories of Machiavelli, Rousseau, and early natural philosophers, including Galileo and Robert Boyle, showing how the boundary between science and politics that exists in contemporary approaches to policy making was built up over centuries of political thought. The separation of the two, for Brown, is at the heart of our current, seemingly intractable tension between expert advice and democracy. To reconcile the tension Brown looks for ways to dissolve the boundary. In the second half of the book he shows how the theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Dewey, and Bruno Latour recombine science and politics; for example, Latour argues that the way that scientists represent or speak for the natural world can be seen as parallel to the way that certain people speak for other people or groups when they represent them in political contexts. Brown draws on these theories to suggest that science and politics could be brought together, instead of held apart, in democratic institutions that foster discussion of important policy issues.

In contrast, The Paradox of Scientific Authority and Science in Environmental Policy both see the (imagined) boundaries between science and politics as instrumental to scientists’ attempts to be influential in the policy process. Keller describes how in the implementation phase of policy making government scientists use a variety of strategies to set their work apart from political negotiations. They legitimate it, for example, by emphasizing its ties to academic science. Bijker, Bal, and Hendriks, too, show how the authority of the scientific advisory panels depends on steps taken by the Gezondheidsraad both to insulate the panels from political controversy and to shield disagreements among scientists from public view.

Yet the careful empirical work of the two books also demonstrates the limits of the science-politics boundary’s usefulness in practice. Comparing the ways that scientists invoke the boundary across the three phases of policy making, Keller concludes that maintaining a rhetorical distinction between science and politics becomes more important as scientists draw nearer to decision-making power. That is, scientists participating in the implementation phase, where decisions create political winners and losers, draw sharp boundaries between science and politics; however, in the earlier phases of agenda setting and legislation, where consequences are less dramatic, the distinction is not nearly as important. In fact, Keller’s analysis suggests that scientists’ success in influencing the agenda-setting phase of policy making depends on their ability to link scientific findings to political arguments about what can and should be done about them. But even in the later phases scientists’ influence is not dependent only on their ability to construct a boundary between their work and political negotiations. Bijker, Bal, and Hendriks’s analysis describes how scientific advisory panels reach across the science-politics boundary—interpreting policy makers’ requests, preparing policy audiences for their reports, and re-presenting their findings after the fact—in order to ensure that their advice is used, and used properly, by decision makers.

The science-politics boundary is invoked in the conclusions that the authors draw from their studies. Keller shies from making any statements about how scientists ought to be involved in policy processes—reinstating the distinction between empirical analysis and political claims with respect to her own research. Bijker, Bal, and Hendriks, however, make recommendations for incorporating the advice of scientists into policy. They divide policy problems into four types, characterized by the nature of the risks they involve. “Simple” risk situations, they argue, can be largely left to the experts, while at the other end of the spectrum “ambiguous” risk situations demand that scientific advice be balanced by the participation of interest groups and the general public. Their recommendations thus depend on being able to assess the relative proportions of “scientific” and “political” that make up an issue. Only Brown’s book begins to transcend the science-politics boundary that all three critique. His reading of political theory forms the basis for envisioning forums for democratic deliberation, such as bioethics councils, consensus conferences, and other “mini-publics” that combine moral with scientific perspectives in order to make policies more scientific by making science more productively political.