In his recent op-ed, James Gover argues that the US federal government doesn’t have the information it needs to respond effectively to current issues such as healthcare, education and income inequality, and is failing to foresee the issues that are coming down the pike. He also notes that even in cases where high-quality information has been made available in a timely fashion, the political sphere has failed to take action before the situation boils over into crisis. Accordingly, Gover proposes “that National Laboratories evolve to become elite, public-focused, forward-looking, think-tanks that provide research and model-based guidance to the President, Congress and the public on complex issues of high public concern.” While his recommendation seems interesting, there’s one facet of his proposed solution that I think undermines the viability of using scientific research for policy development in the way that he’s suggesting.
But first, what is Gover’s position? He notes problems that pervade the existing think tank market: they are perceived as being biased in favor of their funding sources, they have so far failed to accomplish the task just described for think tanks, and they are largely just a front for individual investigators rather than actually being research teams. The 2014 Global Think Tank Index Report goes into much more depth about such problems, noting among other points increased competition for funding and attention, increasingly intricate and technical policy issues, and growing disconnects between think tanks, governments and citizenries.
Gover’s more detailed proposal is that to overcome these issues the National Laboratory system “would require stable funding, more intellectually diverse staff, shielding from political influences and a new management model.” But would such an overhaul really root out the causes of problems currently plaguing the think tank world? I think that the first two elements of his proposal are bang on. More stable funding is important to ensure that attention can be devoted primarily to the intellectual heavy lifting we need from our think tanks. Furthermore, intellectual diversity is key in tackling the increasingly complex, multi-faceted and interdisciplinary nature of topics facing the policy and political spheres.
But I think that the third proposal, that think tanks need to be shielded from political influence, is one that we should take with caution. As I recently argued, the political/policy sphere and the research sphere need to be interconnected, lest they wind up talking past each other. If Gover is really counting on think tanks to fill this important breach, then we cannot have another iteration of think tanks that are isolated from the political sphere—because that means that the political sphere will be isolated from them, too!
As much as we’d love to have scientific purity protected from political muck, I fear that this sadly isn’t a viable model, and that as researchers we need to get our hands dirty in working with the political sphere. The “muckiness” of the political sphere is simply the fact that they have to cope with more than epistemic constraints alone (and perhaps the besmirching perception is that they don’t engage with epistemic constraints often enough). What we need is not more isolation, but a better understanding of how to engage science and politics without either one betraying its character in the interaction: we need clearer conceptions of scientific and political integrity to help guide the interaction.
In brief, I’ll say that I think scientific integrity in a politicized world basically boils down to being open to our research surprising us with its findings, and being open to revising our beliefs and actions in response to those surprises. For now, I’ll leave it at that, and refer you to a great article by Heather Douglas if you’d like to explore this idea further.
All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.