Science Leaders Have Big Policy Role

October 18, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Science and biomedical policy issues are decided outside the electoral process, basically through debate and negotiation between political decision-makers and a body of scientists referred to as the country’s science policy leaders.

While the electoral system sometimes produces broad policy framework, it seldom provides information and includes policy guidance, according to Jon Miller, Ph.D., director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at the Fienberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University.   

“In this electoral season it’s useful to think about how we make public policy in the United States,” Miller said. “On more specialized issues, such as science policy and biomedical policy, elections provide limited guidance. No House or Senate candidate has ever been elected or defeated over a science or biomedical policy issue.”

Furthermore, very few people have ever been elected to office based on their view of a scientific issue such as stem cell research, he added.

How does public policy work and how can it be influenced?

As Miller explained it, the decision makers are at the top of the policy hierarchy, followed by the science and biomedical policy leaders, then the public.  

Members of the general population tend to fall into one of three categories: the “attentive public,” the “interested public” and the “residual public.”

He described the attentive public as those people who are very interested and very well informed about new scientific discoveries or new inventions and technology — the Reserve Army for Science, as he calls them.

In 2004, about 10 percent of American adults, or 20 million people, qualified as “attentive,” Miller said.

About 30 to 40 percent of American adults fall into the “interested public” category: people who are interested in science issues but not all that knowledgeable about them.

The “residual public” refers to people who simply have no interest in science issues; they’re only interested in other types of issues. The latter two groups have much less influence on policy formation. 

The decision-makers make or break science policy, and they include the president, members of his cabinet, leaders of the House and Senate and members of their science related committees, and heads of major scientific agencies.

On occasion, Supreme Court and federal judges have some say in policy matters, Miller noted.

Science policy leaders help guide the decision-makers in making a case for or against specific science policy.

He said about 8,500 people in the United States qualify as science policy leaders. They are scientists and engineers in an array of specialized areas that have the resources, background and knowledge to argue policy, Miller said.

They include officers and board members of national scientific and engineering companies, members and officers of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, major corporations, major universities, Nobel Prize winners, and experts who testify before Congress.

“Policy leaders play an incredible role in determining what the issues are today and what they will be tomorrow. They also know, very often, how to implement policy solutions.”

To change existing policy or introduce new policy, he said they build coalitions of policy leaders and negotiate with decision-makers.

When there is disagreement on policy, or negotiations don’t produce the desired results, policy leaders very often turn to the attentive public, energizing them to lobby their representatives and apply pressure on Congress.

What’s important to science and biomedical policy leaders? According to a national survey of 800 science policy leaders that Miller conducted last year, their primary interests are:

  • Basic research on the human genome

  • Disease-oriented biomedical research, apart from the human genome

  • Basic biology research

  • Research in agricultural bioengineering

Some 65 percent of respondents said the federal government should fund stem cell research on the same basis as other biomedical research. Miller also noted that there is some evidence that a major portion of the opposition to stem cell research comes from anti-abortion groups.

Policy leaders, Miller said, are huge consumers of information and good judges of the credibility of information. 

According to the survey, the highest-ranking information sources that policy leaders use and trust are the magazines Science, Nature and the National Academy of Sciences publications.

The survey revealed that 29 percent of policy leaders use online sources for up-to-date information, such as the National Institute for Health and National Academy of Science Web sites. Some 20 percent trust their colleagues for information, while 21 percent use newspapers. Among other trusted sources were reports by scientists at major research universities.

He encouraged a greater degree of understanding, coordination and communication among the various fields of science.

Miller predicted science and biomedical research would face budgetary constraints in the next five to 10 years.

“We need to be able to talk to each other and reach across the lines and try to, perhaps, form some alliances,” he concluded. “It’s also important to recognize that science has also been a target for cultural attacks. Realize that we have a common interest in joining together against attacks that are motivated by deeply held beliefs and convictions.”    

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