Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Prof Roger Pielke Jr.: Promises and paradoxes of scientific authority

Dr. Pielke is a student of science policy, trained as a social scientist. He makes interesting points about what politicians seek from scientists in terms of policy advice, and gives examples of some ways that advice can be given. His main point is that there is a lot of authority attributed to scientific advice and that it is important to build strong institutions to assure that that authority is maintained.

I was involved as the intermediary with the National Academy of Sciences for many years as that organization created panels to provide advice on the U.S. foreign assistance program. The NAS certainly had strong policies in place to maintain the authority that would be attributed to the proclamations of the groups it convened -- including care in choosing experts of diverse relevant backgrounds for each group, and having reports carefully vetted by outside experts.

Note, however, that it tended to avoid advocacy. There is a role for scientists to advocate what they feel should be believed by politicians and by the public, and what they feel should be done in response to the situation explicated by their evidence. Perhaps different institutions should be concerned with laying out the facts as the NAS tries to do, and advocacy (e.g. the Union of Concerned Scientists). There is also a role such as that which the old Congressional Office of Technology Assessment used to fill of projecting the implications of technological developments and identifying alternative responses without advocating a specific response.

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