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Progressive Science Values

man in lab coat labeled Science dusting off large TRUTH sign buried in dirt while man labeled fed govt shovels soil back on

Maybe you remember this cartoon. It won the Union of Concerned Scientists 2007 Science Idol competition for editorial cartoons about scientific integrity. At the time, the Bush administration was actively diluting, distorting, downplaying, or denying scientific research on global climate change and its impacts on human health and welfare. But in an essay published last week in the journal Democracy, Marcy Darnovsky, of the Center for Genetics and Society, points out that the image of “good-guy scientists” simply extracting “truth from nature” is an oversimplification that ignores the influence of values in science.

Certainly, the real-life analogs to the government worker shoveling soil to cover up the “TRUTH” were a problem. As Francesca Grifo explained in a recent SP podcast, some policy decisions are made based entirely on scientific evidence, and some are not. But “rather than be courageous and come out and talk about which parts were policy and which parts were science,” she explained, describing the previous administration’s actions, “we saw changes in the science to cover up an often unpopular policy decision.”

Yet government interference is hardly the only force that can influence the objectivity of scientific research. What about the commercial support of science that creates conflicts of interest or the industry tactics that obscures information about environmental health?

Darnovsky (who has contributed previously to Science Progress) uses the cartoon to illustrate the point that progressive approaches to science cannot simply assume that research draws a straight arrow between facts and what we should do about public policy. Considering “social and ethical values in the course of crafting policy is not only appropriate, but necessary,” she argues.

Indeed, Science Progress was founded on the idea that values are a crucial element of scientific inquiry. Science and science policy are not separate from politics and ideology.

That’s why we’ve tackled the issues Darnovsky raises head-on. Our approach to stem cell policy emphasizes ethical considerations and we’ve criticized the unregulated “wild west” of the fertility industry, for instance.

But her essay appeared at an opportune moment, just days before news broke that  the current administration disbanded the Bush-appointed President’s Council on Bioethics. Ironically, that council was designed to stop short of offering policy recommendations on the issues that it considered. President Obama has indicated that any new incarnation of the body will instead be policy-oriented.

Peter Augustine Lawler, a member of the recently dismissed council, penned a column in The Weekly Standard last week that lamented this policy-focused turn. “The Bush Council was actually given the additional mandate of public education, of developing a national dialogue on controversial bioethical issues,” he argues. But turn to Bioethics.gov and you won’t see any information about town halls or public engagement. Instead you’ll find transcripts of council meetings and reports on issues that bear directly on public policy—organ transplantation, genetics—and those that are are more the fare of graduate seminars—human dignity, bioethics in literature.

The Obama administration already operates a burgeoning experiment in open government and the principles from that effort should ideally inform the next group advising the president on matters bioethical. Sujatha Jesudason explained how this could work in a recent SP article on “Bioethical Transparency.”

Regardless of the format, the next council should be one component of an administration approach making it clear that progressives do no separate ethics from scientific research that leads to “a more equitable, safer, and healthier future for all of humankind,” to crib for our mission statement. Those are values everyone can support.

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