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Princeton Scholar Explores Use of Science in Policy Debates

By Lillian Gu
July 2007

David Goldston
Former Chief of Staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science David Goldston (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Schelp
John Schelp, Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation, listens attentively. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Richard Maclehose, Shannon Laughlin
The audience present came from various departments, including Richard Maclehose, Ph.D., center, Biostatistics Branch, and Shannon Laughlin, Ph.D., right, Office of Intramural Research. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bill Schrader
Deputy Scientific Director Bill Schrader commented on the role of science in policy making. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jack Fowle
Jack Fowle of EPA hosted the interagency event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On June 8, the NIEHS Frontiers of Environmental Sciences Lecture Series featured a talk on science policy by guest lecturer David Goldston in Rodbell Auditorium. The former Chief of Staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Goldston is currently a Practitioner-in-Residence at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In his talk titled "Loving Science to Death?: How and Why Politicians Use and Misuse Science in Policy Debates," Goldston explored the role of science in environmental policy debate, emphasizing to the near-capacity audience the importance of scientists in the political arena.

The talk was unique in that it was the first in the Frontiers of Environmental Sciences Lecture Series to focus on policy rather than on basic science. In addition, the lecture was an interagency event hosted by Jack Fowle, Ph.D., acting director of the Neurotoxicology Division of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory.

In his talk, Goldston discussed the tendency nowadays for every policy issue to be framed as a science question and the reasons behind this trend. He pointed out "the general high esteem ...that science is held in" encourages both ends of the political spectrum to use science to bolster their respective policies. Goldston also cited the partisanship of political leaders. "This highly divided political elite has to figure out a way to engage the public, a public that is not as polarized," explained Goldston, "And one way to do that is to use science."

While this attention to science may be a blessing, Goldston warned that it is also a curse, a trend that may be harmful to both science and policy-making in the long run. "Most issues... ultimately are questions of value and policy," Goldston asserted. "Science becomes a way to avoid discussing the issues that the political system and the democracy really need to address."

Using deliberations on ozone regulations in 1977 as an example, Goldston demonstrated the difference between a policy debate and a science debate. The science question was, "Is there a threshold level below which ozone is safe?" Since the general scientific consensus was that ozone caused aggravated respiratory ailments at any exposure, the issue emerged as a policy question: "How many hospital admissions are acceptable public policy?" In the end, discussion of this tricky question was avoided and, instead, both sides attacked the underlying science. Although Congress passed the regulations, Goldston pointed out the drawbacks of such a process.

To avoid similar situations, Goldston suggested three fundamental questions to ask when science and policy intersect:

  • To what extent does the policy dispute revolve around a science question?
  • How much consensus is there on that science question?
  • What policy options does the science leave on the table?

Goldston emphasized that presenting the existing levels of uncertainty is important to maintain the credibility of science in the long run. In addition, he recommended that scientists do their "homework" before entering policy discourse. Lastly, Goldston emphasized the importance of scientists in the policy world, especially at a time when science is so heavily emphasized in policy-making.

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