Scientific knowledge should guide government policy decision-making.
That is the point South Dakota State University professor Charles Fenster, the current president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and 23 past presidents make in a call-to-action article in the December issue of Bioscience. As the nation faces the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiologists, virologists and researchers in many other fields should help guide mitigation efforts—and policymaking.
Recent political discourse dismissing scientific evidence and recommendations prompted the AIBS presidents to emphasize the essential function science plays in policy formulation within a strong democracy. “Science does not tell us what specific steps to take to address a particular issue, but it provides information with a measured degree of certainty that should be taken into account when reaching a decision,” Fenster and the past presidents wrote.
Fenster, an evolutionary biologist and director of the Oak Lake Field Station, said, “The organization has a long history of articulating the role of science in policymaking.” AIBS represents 150,000 to 200,000 scientists in 118 member organizations nationwide. It aims to promote the use of science to inform decision-making and advance biology for the benefit of society.
“What draws people into science is the unknown and the opportunity to contribute to the building of new knowledge,” Fenster said. “Scientists gain a better understanding of natural phenomena, such as the novel coronavirus, by collecting data. As they build that knowledge, the data can either support or refute previous notions. That is the way science works.
“For plumbing and electrical issues that are beyond my capabilities, I hire specialists. I listen to them and I trust them. It is mind-boggling to think that people feel they cannot trust specialists that happen to be scientists,” he said.
Some of that uncertainty may come from the very nature of scientific discovery, Fenster noted. “Scientists are always questioning science. We always have a bit of uncertainty about our conclusions until more data is collected and more research confirms our findings. Perhaps the public sees this uncertainty in a negative way.”
Furthermore, Fenster cited historical instances in which self-interest trumped the use of science. “We see this in the backlash of the chemical and tobacco industries against evidence of harm from pesticides and tobacco to humans,” he pointed out. In addition, oil industry scientists told executives as early as the 1970s that the industry was increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, rather than following the lead of their scientists, executives took the opposite position, claiming oil had nothing to do with atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate change.
“Self-interest groups often bring partial science to support their claims or take advantage of the scientific process itself, which has uncertainty in the endeavor to claim as long as uncertainty exists you cannot pin the blame on this particular group,” he noted. That’s where it is important to have a huge body of scientists working for publicly funded institutions that are thereby less easily moved to be biased.
The Bioscience article describes how sophisticated chemical analyses, some conducted by the past presidents, showed coal power plants were causing acidification of streams in the Northeast, which then led to passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990. “The Northeast is the birthplace of American fly fishing and there were no trout in the lakes and streams,” Fenster said. “Now the streams have fish in them.”
On a local level, Fenster commended Brookings as one of the first South Dakota cities to make decisions regarding COVID-19 mitigation based on science. “A number of my SDSU colleagues spoke to the facts about COVID-19 and our city council balanced the best information available to make difficult decisions, at some cost to the economy. We did on a local level what the article is trying to achieve on a global level.”