David Guston's new book provides a compelling analysis of the conflict between scientific and political interests and discusses resolutions that can ensure both the integrity and productivity of federally funded research.
Photo by Nick Romanenko
Tension: a state of strained relations; uneasiness due to mutual hostility --
Webster's New World College Dictionary
In earlier, gentler times, when fewer lawyers walked the earth, it often was said that a man's word was his bond, and deals frequently were sealed with a handshake. Mutual trust was an integral --
if unspoken -- part of business agreements and not a contractual element that
was to be explicitly spelled out and pored over by a team of eagle-eyed
But what if all the contractual details could not be specifically enumerated?
What if the "Party of the First Part" could not, with absolute certainty and despite
assurances of good faith, deliver to the "Party of the Second Part" what had
been promised "in consideration for a sum of money"?
Therein lies part of the reason for the long-standing tension between
politicians and scientists -- the former firmly in control of billions of available
public dollars for a staggering array of research projects, the latter all too eager
to relieve the former of their "burden."
David H. Guston, associate professor of public policy, explores the often
adversarial relationship between these groups in his new book, "Between Politics
and Science: Assuring the Integrity and Productivity of Research" (Cambridge
Guston, from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy,
traces the problems of delegating responsibility that are fundamental to the
relationship between politics and science. "Politicians must be able to see, and
scientists show, that research is conducted with integrity and productivity," he
He points out that after World War II a "social contract for science" assumed
that productivity and integrity were the "automatic products of unfettered
scientific inquiry." Unfortunately, by the late 1970s that assumption had broken
down -- a particularly vexing problem in an era marked by the buzzword
"accountability" and by research grants and contracts whose size approached
the budgets of some small countries.
The concerns raised by mixing politics with science are nothing new.
Balancing the competing needs and goals of these two cultures has been
problematic since the 1880s, when a special commission of Congress examined
the newly burgeoning government research agencies. The Allison Commission
debated whether scientific bureaus of the federal government should be treated
differently from other bureaus. It was here that the argument of "the asymmetry
of information" was brought to the fore by an expert witness, eminent geologist
and explorer Major John Wesley Powell.
Powell raised a primary fact of science policy: scientists know things about the
conduct of research that politicians and administrators do not. This means "the
patrons of research have a hard time understanding whether the recipients of
their largesse are doing their bidding and, if so, how well. It also means the
recipients have a hard time providing evidence of their integrity and their
productivity to their patrons."
Given this asymmetry of information, the case for self-regulation by the
scientific community seemed clear and, indeed, was the guiding principle of
science policy through the post-World War II period. But while many federally
financed researchers may long for the laissez-faire relationship with their
congressional benefactors that resulted, those days are over, Guston believes.
He writes: "People often think of politics and science as entirely separate
enterprises. Science is engaged in the high pursuit of truth and politics is
engaged in the baser pursuit of interests." Scientific truth, he adds, is often
defined by its "disinterestedness." In this model, while politics and science are
"clearly and precisely distinguished by the presence or absence of interests ... they
remain in close proximity: the bright line between politics and science is a fine
one." Science policy, he continues, "perches uncomfortably on this fine, bright
The transactions across this demarcation -- funding from politicians to
researchers, and knowledge or tangible benefits or products from the scientists
to their patrons and, eventually, to society -- are what bring the parties into
conflict. So Guston calls on the science policy community to recognize that this
demarcating line does not really exist and to acknowledge a science policy that
has been operative -- though not faithfully followed -- for about 20 years.
He calls for "collaborative assurance" to be the modus operandi for scientists
and science policy-makers. He looks to "boundary organizations," government
institutions that straddle the apparent politics/science boundary and function in a
type of quality-control capacity, to facilitate the relationship between the groups
to advance the public good.
The increased tension between scientists and politicians can be traced to the
economic downturn of the late 1970s and early 1980s, coupled with a growing
number of cases of scientific fraud, which led to increased public interest,
congressional inquiries and cries for accountability.
One of the most highly publicized incidents involved David Baltimore, a Nobel
laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Baltimore was
confronted by a whistle-blowing postdoctoral student about some problems in a
paper published under his name and those of several other researchers.
The postdoc, Margot O'Toole, testified at a congressional inquiry about her
"surprise, confusion and dismay over Baltimore's lack of interest in correcting the
paper," Guston writes. "Rather than the expected disinterested search for truth,
this disregard of error appeared to congressional investigators to be conveniently
myopic self-interest, if not blind ambition."
Episodes such as the Baltimore affair eventually led large funders of research,
such as the Public Health Service and its National Institutes of Health (NIH), to
create boundary organizations like the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which
oversees universities in their management of research and engages in outreach
and educational efforts.
Concurrently, as American economic performance flagged even as basic
research prospered, Congress enacted measures that, in effect, provided
incentives for researchers to use federal research funds more productively.
Politicians created new opportunities for the transfer of knowledge and
technology from the research laboratories to commercial interests.
Guston writes that of particular importance was the reallocation of intellectual
property rights from the government to sponsored institutions and researchers
whose work could have a commercial impact. The government chose to offer
monetary incentives for demonstrable productivity, managed by another
boundary organization, the NIH's Office of Technology Transfer (OTT).
In these dynamic boundary organizations, says Guston, scientists and
nonscientists (including lawyers) collaborate to help ensure the integrity and
productivity of research. They serve as agents for both the politicians and
researchers in achieving and demonstrating these goals and, Guston maintains,
they have effectively brought the era of the social contract for science and
self-regulation by the scientific community to an end.
"The continued development of ORI, OTT and other boundary organizations
can help ensure that scientific research will continue to provide useful knowledge
in a democratic society," Guston concludes.