Last week, I had the privilege of attending the launch of a new initiative from the Union of Concerned Scientists - The Center for Science and Democracy. The UCS itself was founded in the late 1960's in response to the Cold War nuclear arms race. Graduate students and faculty at MIT decided that someone needed to advocate for "greater emphasis on applying scientific research to pressing environmental and social problems rather than military programs." That goal seems even more important in today's political climate, though the issue today is not between environment/society vs military, but about whether science will inform our policy at all.
Since its inception, the UCS has been one of the leading science advocacy organizations, especially on the issue of climate change, but this new initiative seems aimed at making the link between science and democracy more explicit. Science has something to say about almost every major policy issue that faces our government, and we need to make sure that evidence-based analysis plays a roll in decision making. In his opening remarks, speaking about John Adams, UCS president Kevin Knoblauch said
Like many of the founders, Adams exemplified a bold American pragmatism that put problem solving above partisanship, and sought to base our government's policies on the best available scientific and technical evidence and the most up to date understanding of the world[...]
John Adams even spoke of the “science of government.” In a debate with Benjamin Franklin in 1776, Adams invoked the principle of mechanical equilibrium to argue on behalf of his conception for our government’s system of checks and balances—designed, at least in part, to ensure policies based on verified, trustworthy evidence.
The new Center for Science and Democracy (CSD) will have a number of different initiatives, the most exciting of which (in my opinion) is a series of public forums and workshops, aimed at bringing together scientists, policy makers and the general public. It's clear that scientists can't just sit back and hand down facts from on high, and expect that this alone will convince people. We need to be evangelists. Here's hoping the CSD can actually make a difference.
The whole event - including a panel discussion moderated by Steve Curwood, host of National Public Radio's Living on Earth, featuring Lawrence S. Bacow, the president emeritus of Tufts University, Jessica T. Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and director of the National Cancer Institute - is available to view online. It requires Silverlight (if you stream netflix, you already have this - if not, it's easy to download), and the interface is a bit strange. There's a slideshow associated with it, but the slide never changes, so once you're done admiring Ben Franklin, you can press the button to the right that says "swap media elements" and then the one above it that says "full frame" in order to give priority to the speakers.