In the dozens of science policy talks I’ve attended over the years (yes I know my life is interesting), I’ve noticed two very mixed messages that continually appear. Somewhere in the introductory slides, the speaker inevitably mentions Vannevar Bush’s seminal report “Science: The Endless Frontier.” This sentence often comes up:
“Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war.”
If not this direct quote, I hear something like “science is only one input to decision-making.” Or perhaps “science by itself does not dictate a specific policy.”
I’ll also hear quite often that “science is the foundation of decision-making.” Sometimes linchpin or basis replaces foundation. Both “good policy requires good science” and “science underlies policy” are also standard. The funny thing is that these two positions might appear in the same talk given by the same speaker. They might even appear on two consecutive slides.
I’ve never heard anyone point out that these two positions are not entirely compatible. What, exactly, does it mean for science to be “the foundation” of policy? Does it mean science has to come first? Or that it’s the most important? It’s not clear to me. The upshot of all this is more than mere semantics, as important as that may be. Viewing science as teamwork can lead to different actions than viewing it as foundational.
I can’t shake the feeling that us scientists simply pay lip-service to the former idea, but we really internalize the latter. Thinking this way has, I believe, very real consequences for how we interact and communicate. I’ll try expand more in the coming weeks.