Title: When Science Advice Matters: Perspectives from Divergent Literature
Author(s): Roy Pettis
Affiliation: George Washington University
Presented At: STiS 2008
Primary Topic Area: Science and the Public
Given that policymakers rarely have scientific backgrounds, it is logical to argue that a mechanism is required to ensure that policy decisions involving natural science, technology or medicine are informed by the best scientific expertise. A fifty-year history of books and articles, primarily written by scientists, argues the importance of such scientific advice, especially at the Presidential level. On the other hand, the political science literature on Presidential decisionmaking leaves little room for expert advice to play a role, and some scholars assert that scientific advice is merely used as the public rationale for decisions made on other grounds.
These distinct areas of literature produce overlapping insights when the question is framed as identifying the circumstances under which science advice matters. Potential variables important for science advice to be influential are identified from both science advice and political science literature. The limited situations in which scientific advice has been most critical to Presidential decisions are categorized. A preliminary selection of cases where science advice mattered in the post-Nixon era will be presented. Research focus on post-Nixon cases comes from interest in policy implications for the current science advice environment, even though the most widely-cited examples of effective scientific advice come from the period before President Nixon disbanded the President’s Science Advisory Council. The presentation concludes with a discussion of research underway to explore the importance of the potential variables in post-Nixon cases.