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Just ‘follow the science’?

As an environmental scientist, I have striven for decades to conduct research useful to improving corporate practices and government policies, especially on innovations for more effective and economically efficient prevention of the importation of harmful species. I have often been jealous of the enthusiastic societal support and government funding for other realms of research – including very expensive research – while research on how to better achieve the joint health of people, the economy, and the environment was less strongly supported. Or even attacked.

Why is it that the validity of science behind some societal concerns is questioned, while the science behind others is uncritically and enthusiastically embraced?

We are likely to celebrate the newest diabetes drug, prosthetic knee, or surgery that emerges from biological and engineering laboratories. We are amazed at the physics required to send a spacecraft to collect an asteroid soil sample. We base important investment decisions on macroeconomic forecasts. Societal support for these sorts of scientific advances remains strong.

On the other hand, many increasingly cast doubt on the biology needed to restore ecosystems to support biodiversity and humans. Many denigrate public health research on slowing virus transmission. The science behind estimating the number of lives saved by reducing pollution is pooh-poohed. Many dismiss the physics and chemistry that drive climate forecasts (which, by the way, have a better track record than macroeconomic forecasts). In general, these sorts of science had stronger and more bipartisan support 50 years ago than they do now.

I suggest two reasons for the divergence in the treatment of science behind the policies and practices of the Food and Drug Administration, NASA, and the Treasury Department, on the one hand, relative to those of the Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Fish & Wildlife Service, on the other: Perceptions of benefits and costs differ; and a concerted effort has undermined public confidence in public health and environmental science.

First, perceptions of both benefits and costs of policy actions often differ between the two categories of agencies and, therefore, the science behind them.

The benefits and gee-whiz enthusiasm for medical treatments, space exploration, and economic forecasting are obvious to most of us. Conversely the costs are largely invisible to us.

In contrast, the benefits of reduced pollution, strong species protection, and public health practices are largely invisible. They also seem more likely to be widely dispersed and more important to future generations than our own. In general, the benefits of preventing bad things are hard to appreciate. Conversely the costs of these policies are often highly visible and felt immediately, e.g., when a highway or housing development is denied a permit because construction would destroy critical habitat for an endangered species. Or when buying electric vehicles and induction stoves entails paying a green premium, and their use is unfamiliar and inconvenient.

Second, and more insidiously, a systematic, well-funded effort has gradually undermined public confidence in public health and environmental science, especially since World War II, as Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway have so compelling demonstrated in their books, “Merchants of Doubt” and “The Big Myth.” In many cases, undermining science was just a means to an end: to prevent government policies that stymie the free market. Public health and pollution had to take a back seat to preserving what Oreskes and Conway call “free market fundamentalism.”

Combined with the asymmetric perceptions of costs and benefits, the success of this campaign looms large in current policy and political discourse. The inability of the U.S. House of Representatives to govern is an extreme symptom of anti-government advocates.

So what should environmental scientists like me do?

Some scientists have begun to fight fire with fire, abandoning an honest broker posture to become policy advocates themselves. A 2021 Nature poll* of climate scientists revealed that 66% engage in climate advocacy. That is a radical departure from previous norms of environmental science (in contrast to medical scientists and economists, many of whom have long advocated for new products in medical practice and particular policy prescriptions, respectively). While 81% of Americans still think investments in science are worthwhile, this approach will erode that trust, especially given the already falling public trust in higher education.

A more subtle strand of this approach in recent years has been to advocate for “science-based” policy, as if the appropriate policy choice is obvious from particular types of scientific knowledge alone. We’re just going to “follow the science,” as President Biden and other politicians have said. The problem is this can elevate the expert voices from one field of scientific research over those from other branches of research and other sources of knowledge also relevant to policymaking. More importantly, the goals of policy should be set through democratic processes with many values and constituencies given voice. A dictatorship of scientists is as unappealing to me as a dictatorship of the proletariat—whether the proletariat be communist or libertarian.

As the movie “Oppenheimer” illustrates, as much care is needed in formulating policy goals as the means to achieve them. Science and scientists should be at the table, but they have no special authority in formulating policy goals. Winston Churchill’s adage that scientists “should be on tap, not on top” is apt.

I suggest we aim instead for science-informed policy. One powerful approach that directly addresses the asymmetries of benefits and costs described above is benefit-cost analysis (BCA), which is used widely throughout the federal government to ensure a good use of government resources on society’s behalf. A policy-relevant BCA considers as full a set of benefits and costs as possible, transparently determined and communicated. Some of the key components include the exploration of alternative time frames that are relevant to the policy choices under consideration (e.g., one year or 50 years?), and consequently how the future is valued (i.e., what economists call the discount rate). Over the last 20 years, that is the approach that my collaborators and I have taken toward evaluating policy options to reduce the harm of invasive species.

Benefit-cost analysis in action

Economists Todd Gerarden (Cornell University) and Dave McLaughlin (EDF) recently devised methods to improve social value and equity in BCA calculations used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate proposed flood protection infrastructure. In comments offered in response to a request from OMB for public comments on proposed regulatory guidance, they provided decision-makers with a metric that would enable them to incorporate equity when deciding among alternative infrastructure plans.

BCAs can help evaluate avenues to accomplish multiple policy goals, including how policy decisions can differentially affect individuals depending on their income, wealth, or race.

Under Ricky Revesz, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, these and other considerations, including ecosystem services, the social cost of carbon, and the social cost of water pollution, are increasingly incorporated into a rigorous, transparent, policy-relevant approach to BCA.

BCA is not a silver bullet, but it allows multiple kinds of science to inform how to achieve policy goals without putting a weight on science to determine the goals of policy that it alone cannot bear. In the reimagining of the relationship between university research and policy, we must recognize that, at best, researchers and expert analysts can be honest brokers of information to evaluate alternative ways to achieve policy goals.

An instructive recent example: U.S. climate policy has been enabled in the last two years by the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. All are informed by science and other sources of knowledge, societal values, and political realities. These policies recognized that carrots are much more politically palatable than sticks, even if they are not as economically efficient as a carbon tax, which was the approach that economists had long argued was the most efficient way to decarbonize society. Just following the science is irrelevant if the “science” considered is incomplete and is therefore not politically possible.

My hope is that such science-informed policy options will be at the heart of upcoming congressional negotiations around the farm bill, potential carbon markets, infrastructure permitting, and other topics central to reducing the rate of climate change.

* – The Nature poll may be behind a paywall for some users.


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