Science and public policy — consensus vs. debate

A thought-provoking opinion piece in the Financial Times today by Michael Schrage, an MIT researcher –“Science must be more political.” That title is a bit misleading, however, for Schrage is not promoting the elevation of science to policy-making; rather, he argues that:

Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, scientific conflicts are increasingly too important to be entrusted to the scientists. Public policy would be significantly better off if scientists were treated with greater scepticism and less deference.

Schrage also criticizes scientific institutions and their consensus-building:

An individual scientist deserves much the same standing in a science policy debate as would a parent or teacher in policy disputes over education. Institutionally, however, America’s National Academies of Science, the UK’s Royal Society and the acronymed jumble of United Nations agencies have increasingly abandoned traditional roles as science “advisers” in favour of actively lobbying for their quantitative models and scenario extrapolations to be public policy planning tools. In effect, scientific institutions have evolved into “special pleaders”, as vested in the rightness of their recommendations as any influence-seeking industrial trade group or bar association. The “scientific objectivity” of their forecasts is achieved through negotiated committee consensus.

. . .

Science has been an extraordinarily successful project to understand and explain the word and the universe. Postmodern and deconstructionist critiques dismissing science as just another narrative are nonsense. But history — from Newton to Blackett to Watson and Crick — gives the lie to the notion that excellent public policy is found at the point where excellent scientists agree. The opposite is more faithful to the facts: the most interesting and important public policy debates emerge from where excellent scientists disagree.