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Policy and advocacy: The science policy we deserve

Advancing science and technology in a way that helps to address the knowledge and innovation needs of the nation is much more difficult. But that’s the sort of challenge that today’s civil and political unrest indicate should be at the center of how policy-makers organize public investments in science and technology.

In May 2020, a bill was introduced in Congress to pour $100 billion into technology development to “catalyze United States innovation.” Exactly 10 days later, the University of Colorado shut down its Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. The juxtaposition of these two events is not some bitter irony, but it does bring into sharp focus the essence of American science politics.

Science policy centers such as the University of Colorado’s have come and gone over the past few decades, all aimed at providing analysis that can support decision-making about a variety of issues in science and technology. The $100 billion technology bill is pertinent to the story because it demonstrates why such centers are expendable: no one really cares about science policy analysis unless it provides more reasons for getting more money into the research system.

No one really cares about science policy analysis unless it provides more reasons for getting more money into the research system.

The idea that money is the variable that really matters in science policy can be sustained by two widely held beliefs. First, as Vannevar Bush taught the world in Science, the Endless Frontier, science policy is easy: if you add more money, you’ll get more science, and the world will get better. Second, because more science delivers more truth, as long as politicians and policy-makers listen to what scientists are saying, they’ll make the right decisions about how to deal with the many challenges facing the world today, and tomorrow. Science policy isn’t only easy, it’s unnecessary.

Never mind that the state of the nation today amounts to a comprehensive and dispiriting falsification of those two beliefs. I’ll dispense with the second one first. Spend a couple of hours reading up on the science of COVID-19 and you’ll quickly see that whatever truth’s virtues, there’s an awful lot of it floating around, enough for pretty much everyone to have a version on their side. And if you think it’s just about good scientists and rational citizens on one side, and bad politicians and know-nothings on the other, then I double dare you to dig into the literature on cloth mask efficacy, or hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19. Decision-making is really easy when the truths are self-evident; it’s when they are contested, mired in uncertainty, intermingled with competing interests, and implicated in urgent problems that the connection between science and decisions gets difficult.

So, here we are with a proposed infusion of $100 billion for science and technology, in a new piece of legislation—S. 3832, introduced by Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY)—called … wait for it …… the Endless Frontier Act. As the bill explains: “For over 70 years, the United States has been the unequivocal global leader in scientific and technological innovation, and as a result the people of the United States have benefitted through good paying jobs, economic prosperity, and a higher quality of life.”

The bill apparently aims to redress the costs of past science and technology by catalyzing new sources of regional innovation capacity.

None of this is to argue in the least that economic growth should not be one of the central motivations for America’s science and innovation policies. As David Sainsbury explains in “Race to the Top,” common macroeconomic wisdom, applied in a world of globalizing science and markets, has led to a decline in the high-value-added sectors of the US economy that fuel both productivity increase and high-quality job creation. Innovation policies must focus on reversing this decline. 

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