The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science and Policy in Politics

If you’ve not yet bought/read Roger A. Pielke, Jr.’s new book possibly this review by Jonathan Adler for The New Atlantis will motivate you. An excerpt

In his new book, The Honest Broker, University of Colorado political scientist Roger A. Pielke, Jr. worries that the debate over The Skeptical Environmentalist is emblematic of a “pathological” politicization of science in public policy today. What was framed as a debate over “sound science” was really a proxy battle over environmental policy, with most participants “focused on the advantages or disadvantages the book putatively lent to opposing political perspectives.” For example, Scientific American published a series of broadsides against Lomborg under the heading “Science Defends Itself from The Skeptical Environmentalist”; that title would have been more accurate, Pielke observes, had it read “Our political perspective defends itself against the political agenda of The Skeptical Environmentalist”—but then “it would have carried with it far less authority than masking politics with the cloth of science.”

Pielke fears that when scientists and policymakers claim “science” supports a particular policy agenda, they diminish science’s ability to inform policy development. Those who purport to make policy recommendations based on “sound science” or “objective information” are often engaged in issue advocacy from a certain point of view. Typically, it is policy advocates, ideologues, and flacks, not scientists, who politicize science in this way. In the debate over The Skeptical Environmentalist, however, scientists actively entered the fray, the direction of their arguments determined by ideology and political considerations rather than scientific examination. The end result was a political conflict, but one conducted in the language of science. Pielke worries it won’t be the last.

Today’s politicization of science is due in part, Pielke argues, to the “scientization” of public policy—attempts to resolve policy disputes through technical expertise rather than politics. Such efforts tend to be futile because policy differences are generally not the result of a dearth of scientific information or a lack of independent analysis; they are usually rooted in disagreements about fundamental values. “When advocacy is couched in the purity of science,” Pielke warns, “problems are created for both science and policy.”

Pielke spells out the choices scientists must make if they wish “to play a positive role in policy and politics and contribute to the sustainability of the scientific process.” He lists four “idealized roles” scientists can adopt, each of which reflects assumptions about the nature of science and democratic policymaking. The first, the pure scientist, is concerned with science for its own sake and seeks only to uncover scientific truths, regardless of their policy implications. Such a scientist has no direct connection with the policymaking process; he is content to remain cloistered in his lab while others hash out policy.

The second idealized role for scientists in policymaking is less detached: the science arbiter is a bit more engaged with the practical world, providing answers to policymakers’ scientific questions. He wants to ensure that science is relevant to policymaking, but in a disinterested way. He does not wish to influence the direction of policy; it is enough to know that policymakers will make decisions informed by accurate scientific assessments.

The third role in Pielke’s typology is the issue advocate, who pays more direct attention to policy, using science as a tool to move it in the direction he prefers. He may work for an overt advocacy organization, such as a think tank, trade association, or environmental activist group, or his advocacy may be more covert. In either case, he seeks to marshal scientific evidence and arguments in support of a specific cause.

Finally, the honest broker is attentive to policy alternatives but seeks to inform policy, not direct it. “The defining characteristic of the honest broker of policy alternatives,” Pielke explains, “is an effort to expand (or at least clarify) the scope of choice for decision-making in a way that allows for the decision-maker to reduce choice based on his or her own preferences and values.” The honest broker’s aim is not to dictate policy outcomes but to ensure that policy choices are made with an understanding of the likely consequences and relevant tradeoffs. Like the issue advocate, the honest broker explicitly engages in the decision-making process, but unlike the issue advocate, the honest broker has no stake or stated interest in the outcome.

Although Pielke claims that all four of these roles “are critically important and necessary in a functioning democracy,” he stresses that honest brokers are especially needed. One purpose of Pielke’s book is to encourage more scientists to take up the honest broker role—for, unfortunately, they are in short supply: many scientists instead choose “to engage policy and politics as issue advocates, or more troubling for the sustainability of the scientific enterprise, as stealth issue advocates.” Pretending to speak for science, these “stealth issue advocates” ultimately weaken public confidence in scientific objectivity. If the public comes to believe that scientific conclusions “are simply an extension of a scientist’s political beliefs, then scientific information will play an increasingly diminishing role in policymaking.”

Recommended. Roger has produced the best modern text on science policy. When you have digested the book you’ll have formulated your own ideas on this: how to promote good science policy by increasing the scope of options presented to policy makers. BTW, I have Roger firmly in the “honest broker” category.