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November 5, 2012 / neurograce

The Price of Ignorance: Why scientists need to educate lawmakers about scientific fact and policy

During elections, candidates talk a lot. As a result, the public can sometimes come away with a glimpse of how they truly view the world.  Sadly, what has frequently been shown is the woeful scientific ignorance that some members of the political process have. Recently, a lot of these alarming revelations have been in the realm of women’s reproductive organs or the mechanisms of global climate activity. But we’ve seen these kinds of knowledge lapses in every area that policy even remotely touches. From Michelle Bachman’s anecdote about the HPV vaccine causing mental retardation to Christine O’Donnell’s belief that researchers are creating mice with human brains, politicians have revealed not just a lack of scientific knowledge, but also a lack of knowledge about how science is done. And, even more startling, in some cases they seem to wear their ignorance as a badge of honor.

This problem isn’t simply an embarrassment. It is a serious threat to the policy-making process. It’s not just that these politicians aren’t “into science.” They believe things about the world that are unequivocally false. And that can, quite obviously, have huge consequences in the law, even without anyone having bad intentions. If you were, for example, putting your money into a FDIC-backed savings account, you would have no reason to prepare for the possibility of suddenly losing that money. And so, when a congressman believes that rape cannot result in pregnancy, he, just as logically, sees no reason to make allowances for that scenario.

And that is why it is so crucial to make certain that the people in power are completely and accurately informed about the topics on which they legislate. The current method of determining who gets important positions such as membership on the House Committee of Science is (surprise, surprise) more based on politics than qualifications. Which is how we end up with people like Rep. Paul Braun, who unabashedly touts his belief in a 9,000 year-old earth. However, not all politicians are so strongly anti-science. Rather, they just need some education in it. Luckily, as scientists, there are things that we can do to achieve this. A talk by former Illinois congressman John Edward Porter outlines some of the ways scientists can reach out to policy makers. He suggests offering your service as a science policy advisor to a local politician, giving talks about your work to a general audience, and make the needs of the scientific community clearly known.  There is a lot of red tape that comes from inefficient design of research funding and lacking infrastructure. For example, interdisciplinary work (which, almost by definition, tends to be highly innovative and promising) can have difficulty finding funding, due to “funding silos” which ensure that money stays strictly within the interests of one agency. A lack of simple procedures for collaborating with foreign scientists can also hold back a lot of potential progress. Politicians have the power to remove these roadblocks, but need to be made aware of them first. By advancing the scientific process, we can advance the acquisition of knowledge and, hopefully (although it is proving difficult), use that knowledge to inform future policy.

There are also things that scientists can do independently of interacting directly with government officials. Making the general public properly informed about the facts behind controversial issues and the ways in which basic research has directly benefited their lives is a great place to start. Candidates have to listen to the wants of their electorate, so an informed and supportive voting base can be a scientist’s best friend. Also, being smart and efficient with the resources that we do receive through government funding will reduce any reason for policy makers to view science as wasteful. There will always be bouts of difficult financial times where budgetary decisions will need to be made, and it will be important for research funding to not be labeled as pork.

But these kinds of efforts aren’t simply about getting more money for scientists. As a nation, how we choose to view and invest in research and the scientific process will determine our level of progress and success. To live in a modern dark age where scientific illiteracy is accepted will inevitably cause a stunt in our growth as a culture. Although many advocacy groups probably also feel strongly that their goals are important for society as a whole, I really do believe that the science lobby is not a special interest. We are not doing work to try to sway opinions, but rather to determine facts. And the results of our work can have unforeseen benefits and ripples throughout many aspects of daily life. For that reason, getting the science right in law-making cannot be optional.

These beliefs don’t by their very nature need to be partisan. Sadly though, in our current political state, it would seem that when a wholly false scientific claim is uttered, it comes from the mouth of a Republican. It is also the Republican Party that is more likely to embrace a culture of scientific ignorance. And specific policy choices regarding climate legislation and funding priorities reflect that. Furthermore, there are some projects and initiatives that the Republican mantra of “Let the private sector do it!” simply could never achieve. The expense of basic research is not something most private industries see a benefit in taking on. Yet they use the results of such government-funded work to create new applications and technologies. This process is mutually beneficial as it allows companies to be successful and the work of scientists to have real-world implications. But to pretend that such a setup could exist in the absence of large government support is absurd.  For these reasons, as a scientist and person who supports fact-based reasoning, I cannot support the Republican Party.

Of course, each candidate and each race is different, so it is important to stay informed. and the AAAS are a great way to do just that. And if you’re interested in doing the informing yourself, the are a variety of opportunities for scientists to assist politicians on shaping their science policy. Research America has an advocacy goal and provides resources accordingly. The AAAS also offers an amazing fellowship that places PhDs in government positions where “science translators” are needed (I’ll let you know the year that I plan to apply so that all you other qualified applicants can back off). And of course it’sImage always possible to simply contact government officials directly with your concerns or assistance.

Oh, and don’t forget to vote!


Leave a Comment
  1. Shreejoy Tripathy (@neuronJoy) / Nov 5 2012 4:24 am

    Do you think that scientists sometimes oversell their research to the public? i.e. “more investment in basic biomedical research will lead to cures for cancer and autism”. I’m becoming more and more skeptical that we’ll ever be able to cure any neurological disease given their incredible complexity.

  2. neurograce / Nov 6 2012 3:28 am

    I think the truth of the situation – that basic research is necessary but not nearly sufficient to ensure real-world developments and that a lot of resources and failures are required to get there- is not the easiest thing to convey to the public. So you have to simplify and oversell just to make sure people realize how important it is. But if you honestly don’t believe research will ever lead to meaningful developments, then that’s another story….

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