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E. William Colglazier is the editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy.

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Science, Politics, and Climate

Why has it become so hard in the United States to maintain constructive action for dealing with human-caused climate change? This question is especially perplexing in a country known for the excellence of its scientific community and tradition of taking seriously scientific advice on important public policy issues. 

Science diplomacy and science advice have otherwise helped the world deal with this challenge in critical ways. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has strengthened the science-policy interface while the diplomatic community has made progress with innovative agreements such as the Paris climate accord and the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda. Although opponents of climate action have political influence and significant funding, they are less powerful globally in a case where science input is so prominent.

I believe the answer to my question lies in a strategy of opponents to politicize scientific knowledge. Depending on the policy issue, the political left and the political right have at times used this strategy. Unfortunately, even well-intentioned science policy practitioners and scientists who feel deeply about an issue can fall into a trap that leads to politicizing scientific knowledge without intending to do so.

Politicizing Scientific Knowledge

The quickest way to politicize scientific knowledge—what is known and not known—is to treat it as no different from other aspects of a contentious public policy debate. Evidence used in policy debates comes from many different sources, including from science but also from law, religion, and other deeply held values. Nonscientists have no special expertise or authority in making judgments about what is known from science or about the scientific uncertainties that may be heatedly debated by scientists. On the other hand, scientists have no special expertise or authority in making value judgments in policy debates.

What types of value judgments occur in policy debates? Distributional value judgments concern fairness of outcomes, procedural judgments concern fairness of decision-making processes, and evidential judgments concern what counts as evidence for justifying a decision. Answers that are offered to the sufficiency of scientific evidence for action are fair game in a public policy debate. 

The challenge for the non-scientist now becomes how to evaluate the scientific evidence and its uncertainties. The so-called red team/blue team proposal for climate science illustrates some of the subtleties. This proposal would create two teams to debate scientific uncertainties and their significance, and the claim is that it would be a concrete step toward “evidence-based policy making and against the politicization of science.”1

The proposal is under serious consideration by Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This exercise, however, would do exactly the opposite of the claim. It would likely become a rather sophisticated approach for questioning climate science compared to selectively quoting scientists whose views are out of the mainstream. That is probably the reason for its appeal to Mr. Pruitt.

What then is the flaw in the “red team/blue team” approach to adjudicating scientific knowledge? Although the stated intent is to illuminate what is known from science, not what to do about it, the individual or organization selecting team members, deciding the balance of views, and determining the rules of procedure becomes crucial for the outcome. The proposed rule-making body is unspecified with unknown scientific credibility and track record. The red and blue teams include nonscientists and scientists outside the relevant disciplines. This effort in effect becomes a political process with value judgments of all three types and no guarantee of an unbiased scientific assessment by the most highly qualified experts.

Unbiased Scientific Assessments

For those seeking to avoid the politicization of scientific knowledge, there are two key challenges. First is how to provide objective, high-quality, nonpolitical scientific judgments about what is known and not known from science as it applies to the policy issue. Second is how to convey that information accurately to decision makers and the public.

The best solution is to rely on credible scientific institutions that have a mandate, a reliable process, and a track record to produce such assessments. This work must be free of politics and influence by special interests, the scientific judgments must be independent of government control, and the results must be conveyed to the public as well as to the government.

The institutional example I know best is the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which was created by congressional charter in 1863. The charter specifies that the institution “shall, whenever called upon by any department of the government, investigate, examine...and report upon any subject of science or art.”2 Today, approximately two hundred reports are produced annually by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, with the majority requested by—but carried out independently of—the U.S. government. 

The reports cover almost any conceivable topic and many address highly visible public policy issues. Except for classified information, the full reports are released publicly.,3 The Academies’ goal is to provide objective, high-quality, and unbiased reports using a time-tested study process. The institution’s most precious asset is its credibility, and it goes to great lengths to avoid conflicts of interest and nonscientific, self-serving, or political statements. The government may not always like the answers, but the press and public pay attention.

The study process emerges from procedural value judgments made by the institution’s leadership. The studies have agreed statements of task, are carried out by world-class experts, are subjected to rigorous internal review processes involving additional experts, and are supported by scientific evidence and data. The NAS president, who has the final say on composition of study committees and the balance of views to help ensure unbiased assessments, provides final approval for publication after the internal review process has been satisfied. 

The Academies are frequently asked for advice on policy issues for which responses require making value judgments. Necessary in such cases, in addition to clarity on what science can say with various degrees of confidence, is clarity on what value judgments are being made and explanations of the supporting rationale and evidence for recommendations that rely on judgments that go beyond science. The internal review process seeks to make sure that the questions being answered are truly within the statement of task, the supporting scientific evidence meets the highest standards of peer review, and the supporting rationale for findings, conclusions, and recommendations is reasonable, defensible, and clearly explained.

Challenges to the NAS Process

On a range of policy issues, various stakeholders have used the strategy of politicizing scientific knowledge. The most searing such experience for me came twenty years ago, when I was serving as an executive officer of the NAS and the study process was severely threatened by a lawsuit and a negative court decision.4

The Academies, in this instance, had been updating prior studies on the care of animals used in laboratory research. The government had taken recommendations from previous studies and turned them into regulations applying to researchers. Being opposed to research on animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government and claimed that the Academies’ study committees were subject to the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), a law applying to advisory committees created by the government. The Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, in turn, reversed the lower court ruling that favored the view that FACA did not apply to the Academies’ independent committees. The crux of the decision rested on an unrelated Supreme Court case in which the Academies had been called “quasi-public.”5

The Academies contended that subjecting its committees to FACA would undermine its independence from the government and the credibility of its reports. “The ultimate outcome,” its leadership argued, “may be that the country loses the capacity of getting independent scientific advice” from the Academies.6 Under FACA, a government official would determine the appropriate balance of study committees, all committee meetings including deliberations would be open, and reviewer comments during the internal process would be publicly available. Committee members and reviewers would likely be subjected to pressure and lobbying from vested interests. 

After the Supreme Court decision, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) saw an opportunity to advance its position on another issue by bringing a similar lawsuit. The NRDC was opposed to the National Ignition Facility (NIF) being built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, and the National Academies was conducting a study examining the scientific feasibility of this facility for basic fusion research and nuclear weapons research. Because of the Supreme Court decision, the NRDC could seek an injunction to halt the NIF because the government had utilized recommendations of an Academies’ study that had not followed FACA.  

The National Academies went quietly to Congress to seek an exemption from FACA. Members of Congress from both parties, who saw value in maintaining their ability to receive independent, objective scientific advice, had examples of studies—sometimes quite different from each other—that they viewed as having helped the nation and their own interests. At the close of Congress in 1997, a bill was passed to exempt the Academies from the existing provisions of FACA. Namely, the addition of Section 15 allowed the Academies to maintain independent control of its studies.7 Section 15 also accounted for elements of transparency that were acceptable to the Academies.

The ALDF and NRDC had been willing to jeopardize the role of the National Academies in providing independent, unbiased scientific advice to the nation in order to advance their particular policy positions. The nation was fortunate that Congress could act to prevent this politicization of scientific knowledge.

Judgments on Climate Science

Over four decades, the National Academies has conducted many studies on climate science, providing frequent updates reflecting scientific advances. It is still worth reading the 1992 report Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming: Mitigation, Adaptation, and the Science Base.8 The 2001 study Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions9 was done at the request of the George W. Bush administration. The 2011 study America’s Climate Choices10 examined the state of scientific knowledge as well as policies for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Recent studies have focused on extreme weather events in the context of climate change (2016) and the value of climate damages from updated estimates of the social cost of carbon dioxide (2017).

If Scott Pruitt and his colleagues in the Trump administration want to know the current state of scientific knowledge related to climate change, all they have to do is read these reports. The newest NAS study, Review of the Draft Climate Science Special Report (CSSR), is especially relevant given speculation about what the administration might do regarding a new draft report on climate science from thirteen federal agencies. The Academies’ study committee, in offering many comments and suggestions on the draft CSSR, commended the authors “for producing an impressive, timely, and generally well-written draft report and was impressed with the breadth, accuracy, and rigor.”11

Scientists putting forth their best efforts at providing objective scientific advice can enable better decisions, but there is no guarantee that the advice will be listened to. That appears to be the case with the Trump administration on climate science. In the short run with policy debates, politics is a more powerful force than science. In the long run, our nation is well served with reputable scientific institutions transparently conveying credible scientific information without bias and with accurate representation of scientific uncertainties.

Endnotes

  1. Steven Koonin, “A ‘Red Team’ Exercise Would Strengthen Climate Science,” Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-red-team-exercise-would-strengthen-climate-science-1492728579. The author is a distinguished scientist, former provost at Caltech, and former undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy. His intent is to avoid politicization of science, but his approach is easily misused and a mistake. Coincidentally, Koonin was chair of the National Academies study committee examining the National Ignition Facility discussed later in this editorial.
  2. “An Act to Incorporate the National Academy of Sciences,” National Academy of Sciences, http://www.nasonline.org/about-nas/leadership/governing-documents/act-of-incorporation.html
  3. The reports are available for free download as PDFs on www.nap.edu. The full text of the NAS studies mentioned in this editorial can be accessed using the search function on the website.
  4. Nicholas Wade, “Academy of Sciences, Fighting to Keep Its Panels Closed, Is Rebuffed by the Supreme Court,” New York Times, November 4, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/04/us/academy-sciences-fighting-keep-its-....
  5. Public Citizen v. Department of Justice, 491 U.S. 440 (1989). This Supreme Court decision rejected the argument that FACA should apply to the committees of the American Bar Association that evaluated potential nominees for judgeships. It speculated that FACA might apply to an advisory committee established by a quasi-public organization in receipt of public funds such as the NAS.
  6. Quoted in reference 4.
  7. Section 15 of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, available at http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title5a-node....
  8. Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering, Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming: Mitigation, Adaptation, and the Science Base (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1992), https://doi.org/10/17226/1605.
  9. National Research Council, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2001), https://doi.org/10/17226/10139.
  10. National Research Council, America’s Climate Choices (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011), https://doi.org/10/17226/12781.
  11. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Review of the Draft Climate Science Special Report (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2017), p. 1, https://doi.org/10/17226/24712.
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