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Conflicting cultures
How politicians and scientists can rebuild trust and work together

Archived article from Oct 20, 2000

By Steve Manas  

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 attorneys.

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 University Press).

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 writes.

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 line."

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.

For questions or comments about this site, contact Greg Trevor
Last Updated: May 30, 2006

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