How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 5, Role Of Science


When it comes to rallying support for environmental actions, few things matter more than the science used to initiate, support, and direct political actions. While the effects of chemicals on wildlife, deforestation on speciation, carbon emissions on global warming, and so on can be seen through circumstantial evidence–walking outside into smog, for instance–it is the evidence and guidance provided by scientists that provides policy makers with tangible, quantifiable evidence to support and push for actions as well as the guidance and understanding of what actions will make a difference. Furthermore, it is the scientists who will run the numbers and tests to see how much environmentally potent actions taken by the government have improved or harmed the environment.

This article will cover some basic aspects of science’s relationship to environmental policy so that we can further understand how this relationship plays out in the politics of Washington.

Scientists Political Positions

Scientists are often important players in the Government (see Part 3), especially when it comes to environmental actions. Many scientists have had significant effects on policies, such as Carl Sagan’s work on the nuclear winter published in 1983 that proved influential in nuclear policies (he eventually modified the account). But despite some common thought otherwise, scientists do not always have completely neutral positions–in fact they rarely do. When political scientists talk about scientists in relation to government they refer to them having different positions:

The Pure Scientist: This scientist is unconcerned with politics. He merely tries to find the truth without regard to its political impact. If he finds that deforestation doesn’t destroy species nearly as much as we thought, he will publish the finding without thought to how certain corporate bodies and interest groups will use the evidence to promote the continued deforestation (this was an actual case in the 90s, as cited in Kristin Shrader-Freschette’s Ethics of Scientific Research).

Science Arbiter: This scientist is aware of the effect their findings has on science but generally stays away from political action. The science arbiter may take minor actions, such as taking care to phrase and explain the findings they publish so that they are harder to misuse, but they do so without getting involved in the mess of politics.

Issue Advocate: This scientist takes his science into the political arena and does so with a purpose, attempting to sway policy makers to a certain view. Often scientists become issue advocates because their findings are so significant to them that they feel they must do what they can to address the issue. A lot of scientists talking about global warming are issue advocates. Sometimes these scientists are open about their political positions, other times they are not. Those who pretend to be one of the other types but are really promoting one cause are called stealth advocates.

Honest Broker: This scientist is interested in the pure science and seeks to inform policy makers on the evidence but don’t do it to promote a particular view. They honestly seek to marshall all the information they can and helping to connect scientific findings with public policy. Unfortunately these scientists are difficult to distinguish at times from stealth advocates. The ideal would be for scientists to work towards being honest brokers, so that the science becomes clear and untainted by predetermined political dispositions.

Toxicity and Environmental Projections

The main thing that policy makers look for in scientists is to provide evidence for the toxic nature of substances and to make projections of the environmental effects of certain policies. This evidence, which is gathered by policy makers in every governing body, is used as evidence and support for their political decisions.

Toxicity studies are important parts of the work of the EPA, who employs hundreds of scientists to make assessments on the effects of certain chemicals on the environment. Normally Congress does not have to get involved in these everyday EPA activities. However, in cases where new regulation is required, scientists are marshalled together and called on to testify, present evidence, and provide their professional opinions on the matter of regulation.

Quality of Evidence

Unfortunately, evidence is not always of the same caliber and quality. Toxicity studies are sometimes dubious; they often rely on assumptions (such as if it hurts mice it will have the same effect on other animals) that can be called into question and are normally placed in formats that can be short sighted (the natural limitations of studies normally prevent long term exposure studies). Likewise, environmental effect projections can be easily influenced by the assumptions made by the scientists. For example, in global warming projections scientists build in (normally in their computer models) assumptions about the rate at which carbon emissions will grow, which is an important determinate of what will come out in a long-term projection.

Enter Party Politics

Such assumptions and uncertainty leave science open to manipulation by policy makers. Beyond simply not understanding the uncertainty and assumptions, many policy makers will use this uncertainty to their advantage. They may selectively choose which scientists to have testify, gathering issue advocates that will only bolster their predetermined political position. Likewise, they may selectively discard some evidence without true knowledge of the finer details of scientific study.

This only emphasizes the need within government to ensure that our scientists are honest brokers. When it comes to environmental actions we need to have a good clear understanding of the science so that we can ensure that the actions we are taking are needed, the highest priority, and actually have good effects on the world. Science is our main channel to ensure objectively that this is the case; if we cannot trust scientists to provide good evidence and professional opinions at least mostly untainted by political predispositions, it makes good environmental policy far more difficult.

This post is part of the series: How Environmental Policy is Made

Politics are messy but environmental danger is real. How does such an important topic get addressed without our complex and monolithic system of government? This series provides a look into the history, players, process, and problems involved in trying to enact and modify environmental policy.
  1. How Environmental Policy is Made: Introduction
  2. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 2, History of Environmental and Science Policy
  3. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 3, Key Players
  4. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 4, Process
  5. How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 5, Role Of Science
  6. How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 6, Problems and Hurdles