Science PAC

Hat-tip to PZ: there’s a new American PAC meant to promote good science and policy, Scientists and Engineers for America. SEA is based on the following list of core principles:

  1. Federal policy shall be made using the best available science and analysis both from within the government and from the rest of society.
  2. The federal government shall never intentionally publish false or misleading scientific information nor post such material on federal websites.
  3. Scientists conducting research or analysis with federal funding shall be free to discuss and publish the results of unclassified research after a reasonable period of review without fear of intimidation or adverse personnel action.
  4. Federal employees reporting what they believe to be manipulation of federal research and analysis for political or ideological reasons should be free to bring this information to the attention of the public and shall be protected from intimidation, retribution or adverse personnel action by effective enforcement of Whistle Blower laws.
  5. No scientists should fear reprisals or intimidation because of the results of their research.
  6. Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications, not political affiliation or ideology.
  7. The federal government shall not support any science education program that includes instruction in concepts that are derived from ideology and not science.
  8. While scientists may elect to withhold methods or studies that might be misused there shall be no federal prohibition on publication of basic research results.  Decisions made about blocking the release of information about specific applied research and technologies for reasons of national security shall be the result of a transparent process.  Classification decisions shall be made by trained professionals using a clear set of published criteria and there shall be a clear process for challenging decisions and a process for remedying mistakes and abuses of the classification system.

The official blog motivates the formation of the PAC, “Over the last several years, scientists have come under political assault and the integrity of science has been compromised. The attacks have ranged from White House rewriting an Environmental Protection Agency report on global warming, to veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, to the promotion of intelligent design to disseminating inaccurate scientific information on federal websites.”

This is of course a positive development, though since the organization isn’t even one day old, it’s way too early to judge how influential it will be. Science is like free trade: every politician likes to say he supports it, but when it comes to actually putting it above partisanship and taking it seriously, everyone runs away from it as if it were the plague (which it’s not – at most, it has scientists who study the bacterium that causes the plague…).

On the other hand, some of the eight core points are underwhelming. Bad science is most dangerous when it comes from the government, but it can also cause harm when it comes from businesses or from political movements, which can pressure the government to adhere to their bad science. Corporations dislike science that tells them their products are harmful (think tobacco); political movements dislike science that conflicts with their ideology or that looks scary (think evolution and thimerosal).

In addition, overall, I think the best approach is based on education rather than lobbying. Science isn’t that powerful an interest group. It can only seriously influence government policy when backed by another institution, such as the military-industrial complex. But the backing institution will then corrupt and subvert it; the radical left wouldn’t be nearly as anti-science as it is if it hadn’t learned to associate science with nuclear bombs.

Where science is immensely powerful is in education, obviously. I’m pretty sure that dollar for dollar, it makes more sense to focus on the local and state level on the federal level, given the positively weird structure of American politics. Focusing on education on the federal level (point #7) requires the movement to fight battles that cause unnecessary schisms between localists and centralists, which I don’t see doing any good to anyone, except maybe the religious right.

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