The following is from the May 11, 2008, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Professor Tom Mayo, director of SMU's Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, wrote this opinion piece.
Partisanship a high-risk, low-payoff strategy for scientists
For too long, the work of scientists has been a political football for the benefit of politicians looking to score points at the expense of scientific progress and truth. The question posed by Chris Mooney's essay is how best to address this situation. Someone has to make the case for science in the halls of power, but who and how?
The answer to those questions is suggested by the very reasons the clash between science and politics was inevitable in the first place.
As science has become increasingly dependent upon government funding, the points of intersection between politicians and scientists are unavoidable. Funding levels for government support of research and the selection of worthy projects and awardees all create – for good or for ill – potential for the politicization of science.
Moreover, even if a scientific group wanted to keep out of the public eye and away from political actors, such groups are frequently drawn into public debate in ways that make a policy of avoidance impossible. A recent example is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Last November, ACOG issued a policy that said physicians who refuse as a matter of conscience to provide abortion, sterilization or contraception service may be required to refer their patients to physicians who are willing to provide such services.
This drew a public challenge from Mike Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who expressed concern that the policy might result in the violation of federal "freedom of conscience" laws. ACOG couldn't avoid this fight, even if it wanted to.
In fact ,the very existence of organizations such as the National Academies of Science and The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas is evidence that government officials recognize the need for expert input into what they do. Legislators and regulators may not understand the difference between pluripotent and totipotent stem cells, but at least they can call on the best and the brightest scientists to help them out – even if they aren't always happy about the answers they receive.
Does the cause of science need sustained activity by scientific groups to educate both the public and the public servants who must deal with the policy aspects of science? Of course.
What seems wrong-headed is the suggestion that scientists should get involved in political activity – beyond providing money and time to professional and academic groups that will promote and inform public debate over scientific matters and defend the interests of science before legislative bodies and school boards. The suggestion that these groups should start training scientists to run for public office and should target for defeat politicians whose policies threaten the welfare of the planet crosses a line into partisan territory.
Partisanship is a high-risk, low pay-off strategy for a number of reasons.
First, if support for certain candidates or opposition to others hardens the positions of those whom the scientists are trying to defeat, partisanship may be counterproductive.
Second, political minds are made up or changed in large part because of the positions taken by people in a position to materially influence the next election. Will scientists ever have that kind of clout? I doubt it.
Third, partisanship may not necessarily undercut the scientific authority of these organizations, but partisan activities can be spun that way. Imagine, to use Mr. Mooney's example, that some auxiliary group worked unsuccessfully to unseat Sen. James Inhofe. The next time that group issues a report on global warming or files comments on proposed legislation coming out of Mr. Inhofe's committee, its comments will be all too easily dismissed as coming from a blatantly partisan group with a political axe to grind.
There's little doubt that science won't get a better audience in the corridors of power until the citizens of this state and this country demand it. Public education, not partisan political activity, is where scientists can make a unique contribution to the public debate.
If they sacrifice the moral high ground that is theirs by virtue of their scientific education and accomplishments, their voices will be diminished, not magnified, and informed public policy will be the big loser.
Tom Mayo is director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University, where he is also associate professor in the Dedman School of Law. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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