Research & Insights

Bipartisan Science and a Call to Action

In today’s political climate, science is often treated as a partisan issue. Whether it is climate change or vaccinations, scientific consensus is often characterized as special interest politics.

However, in the new issue of Issues in Science and Technology, Andy Burness, writes about “Bipartisan Science,” and calls for an effort to organize behind research that can attract both Republican and Democrat support.

“In these polarized times, research that has the best chance of attaining significance in the policy world is research on a topic that can somehow sidestep politics or point toward solutions that can appeal to competing ideologies,” he writes.

In his article, Burness shares three examples of bipartisan policies, informed by research, that created positive social change. Specifically, Burness outlines three cases, where research-based advocacy led to policy changes in Medicaid, financial saving programs and pharmaceutical reform.

The excerpt below was originally published in the article Bipartisan Science.

“…there has been a seemingly endless chorus of concern that doesn’t seem to be dying down, calling for scientists to be better communicators. I am a member of that chorus. The theory is that better communication will lead to public support for needed scientific research, greater acceptance of validated scientific findings, and greater funding for research across the scientific spectrum. The “science of science communication” has itself become a subject for research championed by the National Academies. Programs such as The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program (started in 1998 by Oregon State University ecologist and former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration director Jane Lubchenco) have been created to train scientists to communicate more effectively to decisions makers. Duke and SUNY-Stony Brook offer workshops to train faculty and students, and scientific societies sponsor countless “Hill visit days” to bring scientists to Washington to speak to legislators.

But, by and large, scientists don’t appear much further along as a “cohort” (a word they would use) than they were three decades ago. Bitter disagreements over climate change, stem cell research, health care policy, education policy, and regulating air pollution and toxic chemicals often seem remarkably insensitive to scientific voices, however articulate and compelling. Meanwhile, social science research has revealed that attitudes about such issues are more a matter of whom one trusts and what core values are at stake than what “the evidence” says.

Could it be that those of us who are proponents of science communication might be asking the wrong question this many years later? I suspect we’re focusing disproportionately on the imperative to communicate as an end in itself and neglecting the underlying political stakes. In these hyper-partisan times, a more strategic and effective approach might instead focus on identifying research findings that can actually help to skirt politics, seeking opportunities when effective communication of science might draw bipartisan support that actually leads to policy change.

It turns out that there is a history of successes, even recent ones, where science actually informed and even inspired policy agreements across the political aisles. These are successes where, without the science, government or institutional policies in the public interest would never have been enacted. We should pay close attention to these, because learning why some science communication translates to policy change would move us beyond communication for its own sake to a more strategic purpose.”

Read the full article on Bipartisan Science.

Posted: October 28, 2015
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