Bush administration science policy was a mini-Dark Age for American science. Religious dogma superseded evidence and there was very little room for scientists in the halls of power. As that era recedes into the past, there’s cause for optimism — President Obama began his term with a pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” in government, and he has demonstrated a willingness to seriously consider the advice of scientific experts in formulating policy. Most exciting from the biogerontologist’s perspective, he has taken steps to do so by reversing George Bush’s ill-advised and religiously motivated ban on the use of federal funds in embryonic stem cell research.
An article in Seed magazine makes the excellent point that the new administration are not motivated (nor should they be) by a love of all things scientific. Rather, freedom of inquiry and a prominent role for evidence-based methods in policymaking are corollaries of the moral values that underlie a functional democracy — per the subtitle of the piece, “the sound conduct of science and the sound conduct of democracy both depend on the same shared values.”
The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy
Many have interpreted these moves as welcome signs of Washington’s renewed respect for science, and they are right to do so. But if understanding stops there, then we’re in trouble. For the restorative steps Obama has taken vis-à-vis science are praiseworthy not so much because they respect science as because they respect the grand institutions of democracy. This is no accident, because the very virtues that make democracy work are also those that make science work: a commitment to reason and transparency, an openness to critical scrutiny, a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values, a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions, a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment.
The article continues with a warning against technocracy (ceding of authority to scientists without continuing to rigorous embrace of scientific modes of thought) and a reminder that scientists should always be enthusiastic about speaking truth to power — i.e., even if the establishment accepts us, we shouldn’t turn that acceptance in an opportunity to make ourselves into a priesthood that plays by special rules.