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Annual Public Lectures Series > David Goldston

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 12-16, 2006

Science in the Political Arena
David Goldston, Chief of Majority Staff for the House Science Committee
Summary of comments from June 16

On June 16, 2006, David Goldston, Staff Director for the House Committee on Science, lectured at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography on the growing focus of science-based questions in political spheres. As Staff Director, Goldston oversees the committee that controls most civilian research and development budgets, including NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Politicians, and members of Congress in particular, have been increasingly interested in scientific research because it is an objective source of information and a building block for new legislation. Goldston explained the gap that politicians are trying to bridge between public policy and science-based research, however, is not that simple. There are several complications and political biases that make the relationship more complicated than it may outwardly seem. Currently, scientists and politicians are interacting to shape a set of guidelines for science to be used as a guide for public policy in an appropriate manner.

The relationship between members of Congress and scientists has always been complicated, leaving no established set of guidelines or policy for their interactions. Today, there are two important factors that are largely defining this relationship in what Goldston called "golden years" of science and Congress communication. The first is the availability of funding and the second is the current trend for politicians to attach themselves in some way to what they refer to as "sound science."

Goldston pointed out that the only truly concerted efforts to increase federal funding in the recent past have been in the areas of science. Even in controversial areas, such as evolutionary biology, there are no serious attacks on funding. This allows scientists to make advances more quickly and relieves tension between the two camps. The push for politicians to involve themselves in science research has been a result of the growing focus on science as a determining factor or tool in policy making.

Goldston explained that science tends to cause extreme polarization within the government. Generally when this happens, the public also becomes very polarized in their movements and attitudes. However, this is not the situation that is currently unfolding. The public, with exception to small extreme groups, while certainly divided over issues, is not aggressively pushing science legislation or trying to stop science legislation from forming.

Although this is the most positive time for the science community as related to politics, it is also the worst in some ways. Rifts still exist between scientists and politicians and there are definite instances in which policy makers are abusing science, creating a highly complicated and complex paradox for both scientists and politicians to overcome.

Politicians and policy makers are trying to use science in order to justify or defend their positions on certain issues so that it does not appear that they are simply promoting their ideological views. In this way, science is becoming pliable for politicians, as they can pick and choose the arguments that they decide to believe, leading to abuse of research and poor presentation of facts to the public.

Science has become the "objective and gold standard" which every politician is trying to use to support their opinions. Goldston explained that "wrapping yourself in science" as a politician is an effective way of drawing people to your cause, as opposed to the more historical trend of wrapping oneself in the flag. In doing this, politicians are putting science on a pedestal, giving opposing politicians the chance to knock it down. All of which is putting science in the position of becoming "a weapon much more than a tool" for progress. According to Goldston, this will be damaging to the reputation of science in various ways.

Contemporary politicians are attempting to frame every issue as a science-based one in order to sway people towards their cause. This leaves the public with numerous issues that are not truly scientifically driven framed in terms of scientific research, which affect the clarity of the actual issue for the voting public.

Goldston presented the 1997 Clinton air reform acts as an example of science research abuse. The Clinton administration was eventually successful in better regulating the standards for ozone protection, but while the science was fairly well understood at the time, the question of what the standards should have been was inappropriately presented to the science community. The matter of ozone standards, Goldston pointed out, was an economic issue. Scientists should have been asked only to inform policy makers on the science.

Goldston concluded that science should be a source of information used to make correct and informed policy decisions. Scientists, politicians, and journalists alike should work to present clear facts to the public, making sure not to abuse science or exaggerate its certainty.

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December 4, 2007