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There is a recent report out from the Keystone Center. Titled “Science and Technology Policy in Congress,” the report was produced in conjunction with the Consensus Building Institute. And, with all of the House of Representatives and 1/3 rd of the Senate up for election this year (along with the President) it is probably something the science community should pay attention to.
It’s good points are to be found mostly in Chapter 6: Congressional Recommendations to Best Access Science and Technology Analysis that is Relevant, Timely, Credible, Affordable, and Legitimate and Chapter 7: What Next? Hill folks interviewed and surveyed for the report see a need for a robust science and technology capability within the national political structure. They want better identification of the sources from which science knowledge can be had – especially with regard to which institutions would be experts on which subjects. The respondents also wanted both the National Academies of Science and the Congressional Research Service to be enhanced, so that both could provide timely analysis and policy recommendations on important technology and science questions. This was seen by the respondents as being a politically neutral way to enhance the standing of science and the science policy debate.
The bad news – there were only 28 interviewees. Three were Democratic members of one chamber or the other, five were Republican members, and the rest were staff – most of whom were on science related committees. So the sample size is very small, which makes it hard to really know if many of the other 527 members share these views or not. While this may be statistically accurate, with such a small and defined universe, I have to think there may have been a way to get everyone to answer in some fashion. The second challenge with the report is the short list of questions asked of the interviewees – 7 in all. They are well written and focused – “On what issues do you seek scientific and technical advice; where do you seek and obtain that advice?” – but they leave out a lot of the back story as to why science and technology are not often debated on the scientific principle or technical merits. They omit completely the fact that few Members are really scientists, and the few who are, are usually not researchers (instead they are doctors, engineers and at least one physicist). Thus, science policy often gets debated from the context of jobs created or lost, new regulations promulgated or old ones relaxed, or some other not-really-related perspective.
So what are we in the science community to make of this? First, even with the small sample size, there are obviously those on Capitol Hill who do regard science and technology as key issues requiring a significant public investment. Second, such people should be sought out and helped, especially when they are working to better the position of the science community. Third, the report does indeed lay out where and when the science community may better plug into the Hill process. That is important, because as much as it is lamented in the rest of the country, Beltway insiders are really in control of a lot of resources that they American science community needs. So we ignore these statements at our own peril, especially in this highly partisan day and age. Given the needs for scientific solutions to the challenges of global climate change, energy independence, food production, and the emergence (and reemergence) of devastating disease, the solutions proposed in this report should be tried. If they succeed, America will be better for it. If they fail, we will be no worse off.