The Eternal Conflict between Science and Policy

Scientists have always had a rocky relationship with policy makers. From the days of Galileo standing up to the church to prove his theory that the planets revolve around the sun, to the present where the fight to prove human influenced global warming is in fact a real danger to our planets future, science has often times been at odds with governments and popular opinion. In a perfect world the two groups of people should be happy to work with one another. The scientist doing the research and making suggestions, and the politician analyzing how such finding can best be used to server their constituents. However the two groups were always destined to be at odds.

If you take a minute and think about where each side is coming from, it’s clear to see how scientists and politicians are like oil and water. The scientist is a person who focuses on their own reason and logic, who is generally highly educated, objective, and focused on discovering the secrets of the world. A politician is a person whom is at the service to the public. They may have their own views on certain topics but may have to go against them at the urging of their constituents. They cannot be completely objective as they have donors and public opinion to worry about. The speed at which the two groups of professionals work is at odds as well. A scientist may make a discovery, publish a paper, and a few months later realize they misinterpreted the data and/or make a new discovery which contradicts their previous findings. A politician does not have the luxury of such trial and error. If a politician passes a bill, it better last and do its job. If it doesn’t the politician may find their career at an end. This is why so often policy lags behind popular science.

Most of the time we imagine this science/policy conflict where science calls for further regulation, and policy calls for less. But every so often, these rolls reverse themselves. Policy makers may over regulate and science may call for less! I saw this first hand in my time at the Department of Health. Hood Canal located in the Puget Sound off of the Olympic Peninsula has a fish kill problem. Fish kills are probably the most influential event which can lead the public to demanding more regulation of water bodies. When you see hundreds or thousands of dead fish floating around water ways and washing up on beaches, it instigates an extremely visceral reaction in many people. “If fish are dying in mass there must be something wrong!” is often a sentiment shared by those who witness such events. The semi-regular fish kills lead to some very strict policy requiring all septic systems along the canal be inspected and updated at the homeowner’s expense. (Costing $10,000-$30,000 per house) Shortly after these policies were in place, a new article came out published by researchers at UW. This article stated that researches had determined that there was no way septic tanks could influence the canal enough to cause the conditions needed for fish kills, and that the fish kills were a result of the canal’s natural bathymetry and flow patterns. Simply put, the most current science is saying that the fish kills are a natural occurrence and there is nothing humans did to cause it, nor is there something we can do to prevent it. Of course policy makers won’t change their positions so easily, and septic system upgrades are still going on in the Hood Canal region at a heavy cost to the homeowners. I used this example to show that there is no good or bad side to the eternal conflict between science and policy, but that each side has their own set of rules and goals which will forever put the two at odds.

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