The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is in the news for a big donation. The benefactor is Lewis Branscomb, a physicist and innovation scholar, who, among many other things, led the National Standards Board (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) during the Nixon Administration and the National Science Board during the Carter and Reagan Administrations. Branscomb has donated $1 million to the UCS to help with the creation of a Center for Science and Democracy. The center will launch in two events later this month and in June. In recognition of Dr. Branscomb’s donation and his work in science policy, a forum series hosted by the new center will be named after him.
The new center is described by UCS as: “an ambitious new nonpartisan initiative dedicated to strengthening American democracy by restoring the essential role of science, evidence-based knowledge and constructive debate in the U.S. policymaking process.”
I’m not in the mood to quibble with the phrasing (when exactly was this point in time when constructive debate, evidence-based knowledge and science were all in their ‘essential’ role?) or with the perpetual struggle over definitions (constructive to whom?). If you want to play in this sandbox, you will always be drawing and re-drawing boundaries between science and politics, even though the formation of this center (and UCS itself) are tacit admissions of how porous those lines are.
I think there can be a role for a center that does lives at this boundary. But as I noted when UCS sought a scientific integrity analyst, UCS doesn’t come to this as a broad-based science advocacy group. And they could make a better effort to be more non-partisan.
UCS is pretty focused on energy and environmental issues, and may show bias in downplaying scientific integrity problems (or appearance of problems) that would run counter to its desired policies. For instance, UCS is monitoring the Obama Administration for instances of interference with science and progress on its scientific integrity goals, but it has turned a blind eye to certain situations that would reflect badly on its desired policy choices.
I think to be truly effective, and as ‘science-positive’ as one can manage, the focus for this center needs to really be on the process, and the desired outcome of defining and establishing a role for science in policymaking. To be selective in seeking that outcome, to downplay outputs that run counter to your policy preferences, undercuts the message. It makes you look like a stealth advocate.
To that end, I think the center leadership ought to follow at least one tactic from the Ben Franklin’s/Albert’s List playbook and embrace both sides of the aisle. Perhaps the first indication of where the center will go comes when the Director is announced. The job listing is still up as of this writing.