David Goldston on debating science

"Framing questions of economics, ethics and other aspects of policy as 'science issues' does no favour for either science or politics"

- David Goldston, writing in Nature

In this provocative piece, US science policy expert Goldston criticizes a recent internet petition aimed at urging the Presidential candidates to publicly debate the pressing scientific issues of the day. While this might sound desirable in principle, and scientists are signing up in droves, he argues that such an exercise would in fact be ill-advised.

One main problem, according to Goldston, is that conflating science questions with policy questions does more harm than good. There is, for example, a very big difference between asking whether human activity is responsible for recent climate change, and inquiring what should be done about it. There is no one straight-forward scientific solution, and giving voters the impression that there is would be a mistake.

A key goal of the petition is to push for more research funding. But as Goldston points out, "more attention doesn't always translate into more money". And when it does, a politicized windfall of cash for science may sometimes lead to bigger problems in the long run, as with the unforeseen fallout from doubling the US National Institutes of Health's budget some year ago.

Goldston also criticizes a third plank of the petition's edifice: the idea that scientifically informed candidates will look more favorably on science. Again, historically, he says there is little evidence for this, citing the example that a politician can quite easily disbelieve in evolution yet still support research spending in biology.

"If scientists want to help their cause, they might be better served spending their time on lobbying Capitol Hill and talking to candidates – the kind of political activity often seen as 'dirty work' – rather than leaping into the showy realm of presidential debates," he concludes.

You can read the rest of Goldston's column with a subscription to Nature.