Field of Science

Science , Policy, and the Economy

The Dec 5th issue of Science has an interesting editorial from Dr. Bruce Alberts, the current Editor-in-Chief. The editorial titled "A Scientific Approach to Policy" explores how science and engineering can lead to a stronger economy in the face of the world-wide financial meltdown. This is not new news, but it has been largely ignored over the last two decades. Since World War II, most of the US economic growth has come from technology (science and engineering). Think about that for a moment, over the last 60 years the US economy has grown through the activities of science and engineering, yet a vocal fraction of the US population is anti-science anti-intellectual anti-elitist anti-education. Not a big deal you say, well I rebut that one activist in this anti-science was almost a heartbeat away from the presidency.

The point of Dr. Alberts' editorial was not to belabor this link but to point out the other often overlooked benefits to a society strongly couched in scientific thinking. He points out 3 benefits: optimism, a long-term focus, and determining what works without ideology.

I completely agree with "optimism." As cranky as I and my colleagues often are, we basically believe that our scientific pursuits will bear fruit, that our educational efforts will provide for the next generation, and that it's all worth it.

I mostly agree with a "long-term focus" as well. If you smoke today, you will likely get cancer/emphysema/etc in 30 years, that's science for you. If we say that smoking causes cancer or think about it, it will cost jobs and hurt the economy next quarter, that's politics for you. As a people, we have shifted the balance towards short-term gains and from long-term realities (I say this as fuel efficient car sales have dropped concomitant with gas prices). Why do I not completely agree with this? Well scientists are people too and can succumb to this as well, although I will concur that a scientific mind-set makes this less likely and more easily combatted with evidence.

I am completely mixed on the "determining what works without ideology" idea. In a perfect world that is true, but again scientists are people too. Some scientists are religious, how does this effect their research when dealing with embryonic stem cell research or the morning after pill? All the scientists that I know are moral and would not engage in Tuskegee-like research and that is an ideology (moral approach to human studies) I want to keep despite what might work. See this one can cut both ways. However, Dr. Alberts was addressing the policy issues of the Bush administration, such as abstinence-only sex education (to name one), which were promoted despite evidence that they were failed policies. In these cases the political ideology overrode reality, and I don't care who you are, that's a problem.

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