Science Progress and “Progressive Science Policy”

Science Progress, a science-oriented website hosted by the Center for American Progress, recently noted its first year of operation.  As the title and sponsor suggest, Science Progress approaches science from a progressive (liberal) perspective.  The science reporting is strong, with former Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss on staff, and Chris Mooney contributing an occasional column.

Two contributors, Mooney and Jonathan Moreno, post in commemoration of the anniversary.  One notion that Moreno focuses on in his post – progressive science policy – caught my eye and I wanted to make an important point about it.

Moreno frames progressive science policy in such a way that it might seem no right-thinking American could object.  That’s always a cause for concern.

From his post (the links embedded within are to other Science Progress posts):

Our goal was to provide a forum for progressive science policy, a venue in which those concerned about the future of the country could assess the current state of science in America, offer smart, informed proposals on topics like energy, climate change, the life sciences, and information technology and reflect on where innovation can and should take us in the 21st century.

We entered the scene against a backdrop of deep concern. Was our government truly committed to policymaking based on the best available evidence? Did elected officials appreciate that not a sector of a modern society can be sustained without constant efforts to innovate, that the very future of the country hangs in the balance? Is there freedom of speech for those appointed to protect the public from disease and improve their prospects of a society that promotes human flourishing?

So far so good, since the language is one of policy, not of science.  Value judgments made in the context of policy choices are understandable and encouraged.  Unfortunately, it’s not hard to shift from arguing for a particular political stripe of science policy to implying that science necessarily aligns with a particular policy choice or particular party.  Moreno makes that shift toward the end of the piece – part of which is used as the pull quote for the column:

Like our contributors and readers, they know that there is no American progress without science progress.

Progress is a particularly loaded word.  What does it mean?  How is it measured?  Progress for whom?  It also isn’t always associated with science and technology.  They can be used for good and for ill, to advance a society, keep it at a steady state, or hasten its demise.  Science progress is almost as problematic as American exceptionalism.

Given that the Center for American Progress is a noted center-left think tank, and arguably an incubator for future Democratic policy advisers, I’m also leery of connecting notions of progress and science to specific policy choices and specific political leanings. Efforts to make science and technology specifically Republican or specifically Democratic, specifically liberal or specifically conservative, are really counterproductive.  It sets up the community to be disappointed once an Administration or Congress of the opposite flavor takes power.  It also ignores that fact that certain so-called ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ science and technology positions have never mapped consistently to one side or the other.  For those who wonder where the conservative science and technology policy folks are, I’d point them to The New Atlantis.

While I’ve never been particularly explicit about this point, I think anyone who’s read my posts here would be surprised that I don’t think science policy (or science) is necessarily a Republican or Democratic issue.  Put yourself in the position of science and technology as a particular interest group. Both sides have supported science and technology, if not at the levels of support or the cosmetic gestures that the communities and their advocates have clamored for.  Both sides have also placed science and science policy toward the bottom of their priority lists, unless there was political hay to be made by sticking it to the opposition.  Don’t believe me?  Review the last three years of appropriations bills that consistently treated science and technology funding like the proverbial black sheep.

I see no problem with advocating for particular science and technology policy outcomes, as long as the arguments do not rely on the science to demonstrate the necessity of their claims.  Science Progress runs the risk of doing this, and they need to be careful.  I also think it dangerous to try and paint one political faction as the science and technology faction.  Congress has a bipartisan Science and Technology Caucus, and the House Science Committee is among the least partisan committees in Congress.  The science and technology advocacy communities would be well suited to follow their lead.  Focusing on the so-called “War on Science” has been needlessly partisan, and contributes to the continued neglect of science and technology funding in this country by its partisanship.

One thought on “Science Progress and “Progressive Science Policy”

  1. Science is about the search for truth. Politics is about who gets to use power (i.e. force – the threat of violence) in society.

    This outfit isn’t about the search for truth, especially when so many adherents of its politics reject the concept of truth. This is about trying to use “science” in an effort to secure more political power.

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