Even policy experts disagree on the role of science in politics and the public discourse. A panel discussion titled “Is Science on Trial? Science, Politics, and the 2016 Election,” at George Washington University (GWU) on January 27 highlighted different perspectives regarding the level of distrust among policymakers and the general public on scientific issues.
Moderator Jeffrey Mervis, Science magazine news correspondent, opened the conversation by citing a recent Pew Research Center poll which revealed that many factors other than political ideology—such as age, gender, religion, and race—also influence people’s beliefs about scientific issues. He asked panelists to discuss why they think people remain skeptical about issues, such as vaccinations and climate change, despite scientific evidence. Former Representative Rush Holt, Ph.D., CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Research!America board member, attributed some of the blame to the U.S. education system, which he says is designed to prepare future scientists, not to educate the majority of students about science and its impact on society.
Allison Macfarlane, Ph.D., director of GWU’s Center for International Science & Technology Policy and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted that most science policy issues cannot be settled by science alone. Other factors such as cultural values, economic interests and safety must be considered. Conversely, Benjamin Zycher, Ph.D., resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that in situations where some individuals feel there is competing evidence, the federal government should take a lesser role and allow states to decide which policies to pursue.
Al Teich, Ph.D., professor of science and technology policy at GWU, added there’s room for improvement in communicating risk, which he said would go a long way in improving the public’s trust in science. Other panelists included; Dahlia Sokolov, Ph.D., minority staff director of the House Science Committee’s Research and Technology Subcommittee.