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Science Policy Explained

December 3, 2009

In the column on the right I list “science policy” as one of my main interests. Outside of various wonkish and academic circles, I rarely encounter someone who knows what this term means. So I have at the ready, a short summary: science policy is the process of deciding what kinds of new knowledge to pursue–what kinds of science should we fund? Reactions to this explanation range from blank stares, to feigned interest, to polite but vague efforts to relate it to something recently read, thus demonstrating comprehension and enthusiasm. Anyway, it usually takes a lot more explanation.

But today, I’ll let someone else do that work for me. NatureNews has just posted an article by Dan Sarewitz (subscription required; if you’re at ASU, click here), which provides a straightforward and compelling example of what science policy is, and why it is important. As there is a subscription required to view the link, I’ll quote liberally from the article in this post (my emphasis throughout), so you can get a sense of it. (Oh, and I should mention that Dan is my PhD adviser, so… please excuse the shameless adviser worship!)

Dan is writing about differing approaches to resolving the problem of harmful chemicals in the environment. The traditional approach is often fraught with difficult political battles:

Regulation of toxic chemicals is supposed to be based on science, mainly using epidemiological and animal-model approaches to assessing risk. … The United States remains gridlocked in an adversarial system that pits those with an interest in using a particular chemical — industry and its allies, for the most part — against those who want to get rid of it — environmental groups and their allies, for the most part. … The result is a morass of litigation, politics, science and uncertainty, in which debates over how to regulate some chemicals drag on for decades while the backlog of unevaluated substances grows unabated.

But a group in Massachusetts–the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI)–has adopted a different approach to research that helps to avoid the adversarial nature of battles over chemicals:

The idea is this: because chemicals are valued for their functionality, the sensible procedure is not to ban or restrict toxic compounds, but to replace them with safer ones.

… For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency regulates the solvent trichloroethylene, but its health effects remain disputed and it is still widely used. The standard scientific approach would be to do more research on how trichloroethylene behaves in groundwater and in humans to reduce risk uncertainties before tightening the regulatory noose.

Instead, TURI found alternatives to the compound, such as non-chlorinated solvents with no known health risks, and water-based, ultrasonic cleaning processes. TURI researchers tested the substitutes for effectiveness and developed cost–benefit estimates. They worked with small firms to understand barriers to adoption, and cooperated with state agencies and professional organizations to demonstrate the replacements. The result: a 90% reduction in trichloroethylene use over two years.

This is a different approach to resolving conflict over regulatory issues.

TURI thus turns adversarial regulation on its head by making firms that use toxic chemicals into constituents for safer chemicals.

But crucially, it also involves a different approach to the scientific research that accompanies regulation:

It evades endless debates over uncertainty by focusing on finding solutions rather than diagnosing problems. This type of research does not generate many high-prestige publications or huge federal grants, but between 1990 and 2005 TURI helped Massachusetts firms to reduce toxic chemical use by 40%, and chemical waste by 71%.

The key point here is that the kind of knowledge available defines our approach to solving difficult social problems. In Dan’s example, decisions about research structure the debate over regulatory policy. If we spend millions on understanding the role of a controversial chemical in our bodies or the environment, rather than doing research to find potential replacements for that chemical, we argue over uncertainties, rather than focusing on solutions.

Quite often, this simple point is lost on (or ignored by?) the many many different agencies that fund scientific research with your tax dollars. TURI seemed to face certain death earlier this year, and only barely scraped together enough funding to survive until next year.

Meanwhile, it was the best of times for big science, as the US government pumped more than $20 billion in stimulus funds into federal research agencies. In early August — at about the same time that lay-off notices went out to TURI employees — presidential science adviser John Holdren and Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag sent a memo to federal agency heads emphasizing the need to “develop outcome-oriented goals for their science and technology activities … and target investments toward high-performing programs”.

Yet shoving billions into existing institutions will produce more of what society already has, regardless of whether that’s what it actually needs. So, on 28 October, the National Institutes of Health announced a $30-million stimulus grant to study the health effects of bisphenol A, a chemical used in plastics production. No doubt many peer-reviewed publications will result — but substitutes for plastics containing bisphenol A are widely available, and children’s products containing it are already being phased out.

There is a lot more to be said about this problem, and I will undoubtedly write more about it in future posts. For now, suffice it to say that this is not just a problem for the fields of chemistry and public health. This kind of narrow-mindedness is taking place in many different fields of research.  Government agencies are throwing billions of dollars into research that, while certainly relevant, is not bringing us any closer to solutions to some of our most pressing problems. For these agencies, science policy is simply a battle–a fight for more money for the same thing. As Dan concludes:

US science policy is based on the idea that more money is the best route to more social benefit. TURI teaches us otherwise.

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