Science Policy, Politics and Human Rights

author: Kurt Gottfried, Department of Physics, Cornell University
author: Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard Kennedy School
published: May 16, 2011,   recorded: May 2005,   views: 2434

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In this talk, Kurt Gottfried invokes the spirit and philosophy of Andrei Sakharov, Soviet physicist and human rights champion. It was Sakharov, Gottfried reminds us, who in recent times forged a powerful connection between science and politics: just as science relies on objective truths which can only be arrived at through testing of hypotheses, a democratic consensus depends on public study and open discussion of facts and beliefs. But, Gottfried warns, our nation is rapidly “moving away from a reality-based conception of policy and culture” and if our “policies relentless ignore reality, they will collide with it.” Behind this slide toward unreality, he says, is the government’s “distortion of scientific knowledge in advocating its policies to the public and Congress.” Among a long list of examples: the systematic misrepresentation of the scientific consensus about climate change; political litmus tests for scientific advisory committees; abolishing advisory committees on nuclear deregulation; and posting misinformation on government websites about a condoms and spurious links between breast cancer and abortion. Says Gottfried, “Some of these cases are reminiscent of Soviet-era practices.” He warns that there’s a limit to how long you can stay out of contact with reality.”

In her response, Sheila Jasanoff urges scientists to join hands with experts from other disciplines to serve as watchdogs on issues of science and technology. She says that “human rights provides a wonderful umbrella” for such an effort. Jasanoff makes a clear distinction between the practice of ‘regulatory science,’ which is more politicized from the get-go, and research science. She argues for public debate on the values that lie behind policy-making, and to “hold politics answerable to public hopes, fears, beliefs, knowledge, desire and needs.”

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