The 180

Do science and politics mix?

Evidence for Democracy is pushing to include science policy in a national leaders' debate in Canada but columnist Clive Crook says science and politics don't always mix.
A man dressed as Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2nd R) poses after placing gags on fellow protesters dressed as a backbench Member of Parliament (L), a librarian (2nd L) and a scientist during a demonstration against the muzzling of MPs and federal government employees in Ottawa April 18, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The economy and healthcare are guaranteed election issues for all major political parties -- but what about science? Evidence for Democracy, a non-profit organization promoting evidence-based public policy in Canada, is concerned about the lack of science-related issues during this election campaign. The group is pushing to include science policy in a national leaders' debate. 

Katie Gibbs, a biologist and the Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, says that making smart, informed decisions on topics from the environment to economics requires good research and data and that the government could do a much better job letting scientists speak directly with the public.

But Clive Crook, a columnist with Bloomberg View, says that science and politics don't always mix well in the laboratory of public policy. 

(The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.)

Clive Crook: "I think there's a problem when scientists engage in political debates as advocates for a particular policy. It's a problem because we want science to be neutral; to stand outside the disagreements people have with value judgements. And the problem is that with public policy, value judgements come into play: who owes what to whom; what our social priorities should be. And on issues like that, science has no particular claim to expertise. We need the guidance that science gives us to get the facts straight, but once we've got the facts straight, we need to have an argument about what we should do. And at that point, scientists as scientists need to step back -- not as citizens, but as scientists."

Katie Gibbs: "I agree that science itself certainly can't dictate value and that where science is most useful is in providing this information. But it's also important to remember that scientists are also people; they are also citizens and they do have values, as individuals. So I don't think that when you don your lab coat you are, in any way, bowing out of our democratic process. If anything, I think the opposite should be true. We need our scientists to be engaged citizens in every way and get them to engage fully in our democracy."

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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