Five slightly harder pieces—underpinning sound science policy

With just over a week to go before the 2008 US presidential election, there’s no shortage of opinions floating around on the key science and technology-related challenges facing an incoming Obama or McCain administration.  But while advice swirls around issues like nanotechnology, synthetic biology, the environment, and establishing a top-level presidential science adviser as fast as possible, there is less talk about overarching goals that will underpin the science and technology policy agenda for the next four years…

Last Friday the journal Science published “10 meaty topics” for the 44th president to chew on, while a few weeks back we had “six easy pieces” from bioethicist Arthur Caplan (billed as a “Cheat Sheet for the Next Administration on Science & Tech Policy”).  And both the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Center for the Study of the Presidency have issued practical advice on ensuring a sci-tech savvy Whitehouse come the new year.

But most of the opinions laid out here and elsewhere address either the big science-based issues facing the next president, or the organizational challenges of getting a science-informed administration together that can hit the ground running.  What about the overall goals that are going to define the science, engineering and technology agenda for the next four years?

Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s essential that the next administration gets its act together on filling key science and technology positions as fast as possible, and identifies priority areas for research and development investment.  But a set of overarching goals is also needed, that will enable good intentions to be translated into effective policies.

So with this in mind, here are five goals the incoming administration could do worse than think about as it begins to reformulate America’s science and technology agenda:

Foster science-based decision-making. Build a network of respected and authoritative science advisers that reaches to the heart of government.  And in the process, enable decision-making processes that rely on science-fact rather than science-fantasy.

Develop a social challenges-driven research agenda. Use some of the biggest issues facing society—energy, health, water, food—to drive a multidisciplinary research agenda that serves people’s needs.  Make discovery-driven research an integral part of this process; creating a well of new knowledge and ideas that can be used to improve people’s lives.  Enable researchers to cross normally rigid disciplinary and institutional boundaries to address common concerns.  And re-examine the way that investment in science and technology can best serve societies’ long-term needs.

Build Constituencies. Engage citizens in research that is relevant to them.  Inspire and enable everyday people to take an interest in, support, and even participate in, research that could change their lives.  Make the scientific enterprise personal—where there are goals that will make a difference to individuals, help them to become part of the process. It works with medical research—it should work in other areas as well.

Nurture critical thinking. Institute formal and informal education programs that empower people to make evidence-based decisions.  Not everyone is interested in science.  But everyone should be able to distinguishing between good science and bad science—especially when important decisions are to be made. While many people struggle with the complexities of science at some point, most people are capable of understanding the implications of scientific and technological innovations—given half a chance.  As Arthur Caplan writes; “the American people are not dense.”

Cultivate civic scientists. Develop a generation of scientists, technologists and engineers that can, in the words of Neal Lane, “step beyond their campuses, laboratories, and institutes and into the center of their communities to engage in active dialogue with their fellow citizens.”  Because these are the people who will be most effective in informing science-based decisions, making a social challenges-driven research agenda work, building constituencies around key issues, and empowering citizens to think critically.

Developing such an overarching set of science policy goals will never replace addressing the big issues outlined in the Science article and others.  But it just might make the process a little easier.


3 Responses to Five slightly harder pieces—underpinning sound science policy

  1. Well thought and presented suggestions, not just for science policy, but also for science education. I’ll be recommending it to others. Thanks Andrew.

  2. […] a nice bit of synchorncity, Andrew Maynard tweeted a link to his new blog post covering an agenda for developing science and technology policy for the US. He suggests five […]

  3. […] OK, so I couldn’t resist adding just one comment.  As well as identifying the big targets for science and technology, the incoming administration will also need to get to grips with how it “does science” if limited resources are to be leveraged most effectively.  These will include establishing overarching science policy goals—something along the lines of my “Five slightly harder pieces.” […]

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