Science and Public Policy: Making Scientifically Informed Decisions in Government

Ben Wright, Writer on Science and Technology

17 January, 2019

President Trump has signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017

President Trump has signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017


It is widely apparent that the majority of people are scientifically illiterate. A 2014 survey comparing the views of United States adults with those held by members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is telling. Just 37% of the surveyed adults, compared to 88% of scientists, thought that it was safe to eat genetically modified foods. As well, just 65% of adults believed humans have evolved over time, compared to 98% of scientists.  In a similar, but more humorous survey from Oklahoma State University, 80% of Americans responded that they were in favour of mandatory labelling of food containing DNA.

While policy-makers are on average more educated than the general public in the United States, they are not too far ahead when it comes to scientific literacy.  This was painfully apparent at the recent United States congressional hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Sen. Orrin Hatch, for example, asked Zuckerberg “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for this service.”  A basic level of understanding of the business models surrounding online platforms would have made clear to the Senator and others that Facebook earns revenue primarily by displaying advertising content to its users.  During a similar hearing with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, lawmakers continued to show a significant lack of understanding in their questioning.  In a telling moment, Representative Steve King asked why a negative notification regarding him appeared on his daughter's iPhone, before being reminded by Pichai that Google does not produce iPhones, and that regardless of that fact, such notifications are sent from applications not related to Google.

Unfortunately, this lack of scientific literacy inhibits these policy-makers’ ability to do their job. Increasingly, science and technology are at the forefront of important government decisions. First, communications technology is one of the largest and most rapidly expanding economic sectors in the world. It is crucial that politicians understand the industry in order to manage and regulate it. As well, as humans have an ongoing effect on our planet’s climate climate, governments must be able to make scientifically informed decisions on environmental policy. The story continues with emerging fields in science and technology such as genetic editing, lab-grown foods, and artificial intelligence.

In the coming years, there will be important decisions to be made in each of these areas. Governments around the world will, for example, have to decide whether to allow genetic editing within their borders and if they are to allow it, they must decide for what purposes. Lab-grown foods will need to be regulated in order to ensure their safety. Artificial intelligence must also be regulated to ensure that it is secure and does not, as some are concerned, pose threats to humanity. With a lack of scientific knowledge in government, it will be nearly impossible to make such decisions with credence and conviction.

While each decision on its own may not seem to have much weight, on a global scale, it will be the sum of such decisions that shape how our world moves forward. There are two ways in which governments can, moving forward, put more scientific weight behind their decisions. The first is to give more decision making powers to organizations with a focus on science and technology. In democratic states especially, these powers would be limited in their scope to remain within the confines of democracy, however, they would provide an important influence from within to drive a government to make scientifically motivated choices.

The second way to integrate science into government is to integrate scientific briefing and education of lawmakers into government procedure. Ahead of any decision, major or minor, to be made by lawmakers, a panel or organization led by science and technology experts would be used to give them enough understanding to make an informed choice. This would ensure that at the very least a basic level of comprehension would lay behind government resolutions. On a global scale, the United Nations provides guidelines and targets for member nations to strive to reach in various facets of government. If they released a similar benchmark for scientific presence in government, it would encourage nations to think hard about improving their decision-making process when it relates to science and technology.

Whatever the method may be, it is crucial that every nation makes improvements. Never in history have science, technology, and public policy been so intertwined, and it is, therefore, crucial that lawmakers make informed decisions in these fields. It is inefficient and irresponsible to continue to ask people who lack any advanced scientific training to continue to shape our future by making choices with scientific frameworks and consequences.