When We Sideline Science, Our Democracy Suffers | Commentary

Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:00am

Is the House Science Committee sidelining science? Based on a new, comprehensive look at the witnesses who have appeared before the committee in the past 12 years, it seems so.

This trend is a symptom of a broader problem. Too many policymakers are treating science as a political football rather than as a useful tool for identifying and responding to risks that scientists uncover.

In the past five Congresses, the share of witnesses the science committee called from industry groups increased from 18 percent to 28 percent. These increases occurred under both Democratic and Republican control. The growing reliance on industry voices seems to be reducing how often the committee hears from academic scientists. In the most recent complete Congressional term, the committee heard from significantly more industry witnesses than academics for the first time in recent history. While academics made up 33 percent of the witness pool in the 111th Congress, their share dropped to less than 25 percent in the 112th.

The committee, which considered a diverse set of issues over the study period, including space exploration, weather monitoring, terrorist attacks, spending, education, energy and climate change, obviously benefits from scientific advice. And while there are many valid reasons to hear from industry representatives, including federal contractors and industries that comply with science-based laws, the tilt toward witnesses from outside the scientific community is troubling.

The types of hearings have changed too. There has always been a tendency, when the political party of the president differs from that in the House majority, for oversight of the executive branch to increase. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of hearings focusing on issues and legislation.

To be sure, the Science Committee still tackles some serious issues with patience and deliberation. But increasingly, members are using their committees to hold show hearings that advance partisan agendas instead of substantive ones that inform active legislative debates. While this trend isn’t unique to the Science Committee, it seems that growing political polarization is contributing to a decline in the quality and quantity of scientific advice Congress receives.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We’ve lived through politicized disputes about the science linking industrial emissions to ozone depletion and acid rain, smoking to lung disease and asbestos exposure to cancer. Thankfully, misleading arguments over established science on these topics are no longer a dominant part of our public policy debates. But politicized disagreements about science persist, whether it’s on established science linking heat-trapping emissions to climate change, the strong evidence base that shows vaccines are helpful — not harmful — to childhood health, and emerging science on the water and air pollution risks that can come with the construction of new hydraulic fracturing operations.

In order to have productive political debates, we need to draw the right distinctions between science and policy. We can disagree strongly about policy — it’s something Americans are quite good at — but we shouldn’t confuse those disagreements with attempts to reject or disparage scientific evidence. We also shouldn’t assume, just because scientists have uncovered a new risk we face, that potentially costly or intrusive government action is warranted.

The House Science Committee can help. It can call on more independent experts to help inform its work while requiring all witnesses to proactively disclose conflicts of interest they might have.

More broadly, members of Congress should be able to rely on independent scientific advice from institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences. Congress used to have its own scientific advisory body, the Office of Technology Assessment, but it was axed during late-1990s budget cuts. It should consider revitalizing this important function of providing nonpartisan science advice on an ongoing basis.

When we sideline science in public policy debates, we lose one of the most valuable tools we have for learning about and responding to world around us. Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt all appreciated the need for reasoned debates grounded in the facts. Their respect for science and reason gave us our Constitution, the first drug labels and our national park system. More than that, they helped make us a world leader in technology and innovation.

American science and American democracy work best when they work together. It’s long past time scientists and policymakers both got back to working together productively on issues that affect our lives, our well-being, and the prosperity of future generations.

Andrew A. Rosenberg directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Yogin Kothari is a legislative assistant in the center. Their new analysis is available at ucsusa.org/committeeanalysis.