Science’s role in public policy is multifaceted

Felipe Cabrera

On paper, politicians are responsible for creating policies, legislation and regulations based on the best possible information available to benefit the wellbeing of the American people.

However, 87 percent of Americans believe that it is important for candidates for president and Congress to have a basic understanding of sciences that impact public policy issues, according to a poll from

This poll reached a common consensus across the political spectrum — 92 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents.

“Every politician should know how the scientific method works,” said Brodie Johnson, senior in chemical engineering. “They need to have a better understanding and respect for what researchers are doing so there’s no miscommunication.”

There are politicians who may make decisions on scientific policies based on their personal beliefs, party affiliations and special interest groups instead of available scientific research and data.

“We want them to make decisions based on the best available evidence,” said Dr. Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. “We hope they’re making these decisions with science experts.”

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is the head of the House of Science Committee, but vehemently disagrees with scientific values and principles. Smith is against all scientific evidence available on evolution, is a steadfast creationist and has supported restrictions on abortion.

He’s also a prominent global warming skeptic who believes all of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research and data in global climate change is altered and has actively tried to hinder their research. Smith has also gone as far as to throw a snowball at President Barack Obama to prove climate change is a myth. 

“It’s alarming that we have people elected at [federal] levels who completely dismiss overwhelming science,” said state Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center. “They go with 1 percent of scientist that agree with them. In any other case, if they were for it, they would go with the 99 percent.”

Nyhan said because scientific issues such as global warming, abortion and vaccinations are politicized, politicians will decide on what scientific research they will present as truth based on their political parties — whether they believe it or not.

Nyhan studied this confirmation bias on the public scale with people against vaccinations. One of Nyhan’s studies found that people who are hesitant about vaccinations were given information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention countering common myths about vaccines. While they stopped believing vaccines causes autism, they still said they wouldn’t give vaccines to their children.

Sodders said he isn’t sure if politicians should have a say on a particular type of science they’re not familiar with. If a public policy for cloning came across the table, he said politicians should weigh in to feel out the perceptions of the general public, and hopefully have the pulse of the area they govern.

“Here’s the tough part — we fund stuff,” Sodders said. “If I don’t fund you how are you going to do it?”

Sodders said that a large majority of science research is funded through federal grants for both research done at state colleges and large corporations. The federal government spends $140 billion in research and development, according to the Boston University Research Department. One way politicians can halt research in science and technology is by simply not funding it if it doesn’t meet their political agenda.

“Research is done because there’s a reason to do it,” Johnson said. “Sometimes the reason is good, sometimes it’s for money from politicians. There’s going to be a want for specific results in research.”

Johnson said he believes despite the bias politicians may hold for their respective parties and constituents, they should have the last say when it comes to any piece of policy or legislature.

“Politicians do need to have a final say because they are in charge of the law,” Johnson said. “It’s their job to know the laws and how things should be regulated, while scientist and researchers need to know how the science works.”

Johnson said that politicians should stay within their respective fields, however, there needs to be interconnectivity with science in politics. Without scientists, politicians can’t pass laws based on scientific research in the right way, and without politicians there isn’t a way to communicate the laws to the public.

“It’s important to keep politics outside of the scientific process itself,” Nyhan said. “Scientists should stick to what they’re best at and politicians should stick to politics. The problem comes when we confuse the two.”

Dr. Kenneth Lutz, a faculty member of the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering, works to connect students of engineering with public policy work. He said if the government allowed scientists and engineers to make decisions on their own, it would take away freedoms that were granted to American citizens. Science shouldn’t govern laws, he said.

“You shouldn’t take away the rights for politicians to make decisions on science,” Lutz said. “They should try to be informed and try to inform their constituents as best as possible.”

Jill Schoborg, senior in chemical engineering, said politicians should surround themselves with experts in STEM fields when making decisions on public policy in a collaborative effort. However, the final decision should be left to the appointed politician as dictated by the democratic process.

“You’re not going to find someone who’s a jack of all trades,” Schoborg said. “There’s no way someone can know about everything they’re making decisions on.”

Sodders has faced a similar dilemma in his political career when he placed as a chair member of the Committee on Education. Sodders has nearly 30 years of experience as a law enforcement officer, but has no background in education.

“It’s part of the job to learn this stuff and ask questions and to come to some conclusions,” Sodders said, “I try to ask questions on a particular bill, check different places for different points of view … not everybody does that.”

While Sodders was on the Committee on Education he sought out staffers who are experienced in education to help on issues he needed clarity on, and relied on other Iowa senators and house members with backgrounds in education. The other part of it is research, he said.

“If you tell me that online classes or homeschooling is better than public schools, where’s the research?” Sodders said. “If you’re going to make that claim, I want to see the research you got.”

Even when politicians make decisions on policies after consulting engineers and scientists, the public might reject the policy despite what the research says. This can be due to moral beliefs or miscommunication between researchers and the public. If a policy that can better the lives of Americans is unsupported by tax payers and voters, it can stifle scientific research and affect the lives of everyone.

“Sadly the public is not a scientifically informed public,” Johnson said. “A lot of information is released but the public doesn’t understand it.”

Scientific literacy in the United States is low compared to other countries, according to a report by the National Science Foundation. The NSF defines science literacy as understanding basic facts and concepts and understanding how the scientific process works. The NSF found that two-thirds of Americans don’t have a grasp on the scientific process.

A piece of policy or legislature should be passed even if it has public disapproval if it’s proven to have an overwhelming positive effect on society based on the best available science, Johnson said. Until the public is a fully knowledgeable about the scientific and research process, Johnson said the public shouldn’t make decisions based on science.

If you take a survey of the public more than half are against animals used in scientific research, Johnson said. Despite the public’s disapproval on animal testing, Johnson said there isn’t a single medical study that doesn’t use animals.

“The public is necessary for keeping science moral so it doesn’t go too far,” Johnson said. “But if they don’t understand what is going on they shouldn’t be making decisions.”

As a society we decided there are certain things that are so important because of the post they imposed on other people, they’re required, Nyhan said. Public schools and Universities require students to be vaccinated because of the risk some viruses pose to everyone else.

“You have to do what’s right,” Sodders said. “If all the information you have is good science …you do what’s right for the people.”

Forcing tax payers and voters to follow policies they had no say in goes against the democratic process, Schoborg said. You want people to believe in science and have faith in scientists, but you can’t take away freedoms that were granted to them even if the freedoms don’t agree with the evidence.

Nyhan said the difference between the political process and the regulatory process also needs to be considered in the discourse. In the case of vaccines, the political system wants to delegate how to best administrate the vaccine.

The political system then goes to the regulatory system, agencies that will refer to experts who will help decide what vaccines should be part of the required schedule.

Nyhan said sometimes the two process can be complementary. Experts and politicians both play a role in deciding how science and research impact policies and legislature.

“There is no big answer. It’s really a case-by-case question,” Nyhan said. “Science is valuable and useful, but often covers topics that are extremely controversial.”