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All Science is Political

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John Freemuth | Nov 02, 2009 08:40 AM

Earlier this month, I was privileged to be part of a keynote panel at the 10th Biennial Conference for research on the Colorado Plateau.  I chose, in part, to talk about the relationship of science and public policy making, because I had just finished writing an essay on that topic for the soon-to-be-published science assessment on the sage-grouse. In my talk, I referenced a sentence I helped write as one of several science advisors to BLM: "the use of the best-available science—along with a consideration of political, social, and economic information—will result in the best-informed decisions."

What followed the panel was a lively discussion about the role of science in public policy; a discussion that led me to conclude that my friends in biology, ecology, conservation biology and related fields are light years ahead of other scientific disciplines in appreciating the complexities within the use of science in public policy making.

Yet, how often do we continue to hear rather strident claims that “the science is in” and derisive knocks on science reports we don’t agree with calling them political science. These assertions imply that science ought to overrule any sort of democratic discussions based on deeply held values, or paradoxically reveal an awareness that science is being pushed to just that sort of overruling. The only way that should happen is that we collectively decide to put scientists in charge of making public policy.

On the other hand it is also fair to argue that land managers do a poor job at showing scientists how they use science in public land decision making. It is as if the managers enter a black room with their scientific information and poof - a decision appears that has no explanation as to how the science was or was not used in helping make that decision. In other words, managers do not do a good job at explaining how they used political economic and social information in their decisions, because we know they do use that information.

I wonder if we can do better. We all know that a pending listing of the sage-grouse is being watched throughout most of the West. We also know what happened the last time a potential listing arose during the Bush administration. Might we create a sage-grouse science and public policy deliberative forum, where scientists, the public and interested decision makers might assemble to talk through the issues surrounding a listing of the sage-grouse? Scientists known for their skills in communication could present their best science in an accessible and understandable way, while letting us know how their values and assumptions guided and informed their work. Scientists should be rewarded for doing this. They could also debate and question each other, so the public could see science at work. The public could ask questions, could talk about the scientific information they think would be useful, but be prepared to put their own assumptions and values on the table, such as whether they have already decided that they are for or against listing. Conserving sage-grouse and habitat are good goals, but some of the measures required to do that may not accepted by people in the western US that have other priorities. Is this true?

We should also listen to the perspective of various sage-grouse working groups throughout the West who provide a way to link questions of science to questions of public and agency concerns and values. Managers and decision makers ought to come, indeed be compelled to come, and talk about the factors that govern their listing decisions, and the role that science plays or does not play in those decisions. Together perhaps, all parties could develop the sort of guidelines that should be used by managers and decision-makers in reviewing the scientific information needed for an effective listing decision. This process would take much work, but it might be more politically sustainable, and certainly more democratic, than our current one.

Editor's Note:

To learn more about the sage-grouse declines and conservation efforts, check out HCN story Hatching a Plan for the Sage Grouse. Scientists have also created a sage-grouse robot that stalks sage-grouse and records their mating displays - kinda crazy. (h/t Ray Ring) And HCN Grange blogger Courtney Lowery just posted on a new sage-grouse study.

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