The spring 2022 Science and Democracy Lecture, hosted by the Program on Science, Technology and Society (STS) program at Harvard Kennedy School, welcomed guest speaker Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and included a panel discussion with Harvard experts. The lecture, titled “For the People: The Role of Science," began with a brief nod to the history of the NAS, which Abraham Lincoln established in 1863.
McNutt explained the organization came about following the Civil War. After witnessing two ironclad warships battle to a draw because “cannonballs just bounced off the sides of these ships,” Lincoln is said to have proclaimed he wanted scientists on his side. And the NAS was born as a self-perpetuating independent entity whose purpose was to advise the nation. McNutt noted that science has been important to our democracy ever since. “Science is the best way that mankind has yet delivered to get us out of the zero-sum problem,” she said. “It allows more people to have enough energy, enough food, and an improved quality of life without others having less.”
McNutt discussed how science can inform policy—how it has done so in the past, is doing so in the present, and how we can use "the power of science to imagine better solutions” in the future. Sometimes the results are unexpected. McNutt gave the example of smoking on airplanes, “something most of the people attending this lecture won’t remember.” Because of a rising concern about secondhand cigarette smoke, public health advocates asked the FAA for a report from the NAS on whether banning smoking on airplanes would improve public health. And while the NAS report concluded secondhand smoke was a concern and smoking on airplane should be banned, it was an aircraft engineer on the NAS committee who added a potential life-saving caution. “He told the committee that it was actually the tar and nicotine from the cigarettes that was plugging pinprick holes that developed in the passenger cabin of the airplane and kept it from depressurizing at altitude,” McNutt explained. "If smoking were banned all at once the cabins would not hold air pressure at altitude, causing problems for breathing.” The FAA, based on this report, decided to ban smoking in a phased approach, allowing airplane manufacturers to improve the passenger cabins. McNutt concluded her talk with a quote from David Grey of Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment: “Science without policy is just science. Policy without science is gambling.”
“Science without policy is just science. Policy without science is gambling.”
Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies and the director of the STS, introduced the panelists after McNutt’s presentation. Jason Furman, the HKS Aetna Professor of the Practice of Economic Policy and former top economic adviser to President Obama, spoke about how science is essential to economic policy, and how scientists and policymakers can learn from one another. “I found the scientists who have come to us at the Council of Economic Advisors say, ‘we know parts of this issue, but there's this other part about how it affects the labor market or how it affects wages. Can we work together with you on it?’” Furman praises problem-solving approaches that include a diversity of expertise: “This is a way of collectively solving a problem. You need science, you need economics, you need engineering, you need psychology, you need so many different things to solve any problem.”
Latanya Sweeney, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology, spoke about hopes for the NAS around technology. “I'd like to see the NAS think in terms of expanding to include technology as its own category,” she said. Without scientific facts, she noted, policy around technology and society clashes. She gave an example of how she was able to link former Massachusetts Governor William Weld’s voter information to his health records—data that was supposed to be anonymous. “I did that while I was a graduate student at MIT, and within a month I was testifying in D.C., and three months later, laws around the world were changed.” That simple example, Sweeney said, illuminated how technology was clashing with society and how policy could address such clashes. “One of the things I argue now is that our democracy has allowed the arbitrary decisions that technology designers make dictate the rules we live by,” she said. “Twitter has, for example, a notion of free speech, but it’s not the same as America’s notion of free speech. But increasingly, even in classrooms, people will argue from the Twitter perspective.” She concluded, “I hope that the NAS will give us technologists who will continue to work in the public interest.”
James Stock, vice provost for climate and sustainability and the Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy at Harvard, directed the conversation to the role of science and climate policy. He focused on three challenges and how the NAS can play an important role in all three. The first challenge is science communication and education of the general public. “If we just think about science and climate, one of the first things that comes to mind is the challenge of climate denialism,” he said. “Most of the debate is not in good faith. Most of it was funded by special interests. A lot of work needs to be done to counter this misconception.” His second challenge is the interaction of science and the administrative and legal system. “Administrative law has embraced science and it is embedded in many of the decision-making processes that agencies go through,” he said. But the process is dependent on political interpretations, he cautioned. “It’s not completely clear that it’s a process that’s self-correcting, and the challenge is how can we make that so.” The third challenge is about science policy decisions and what science should and should not be pursued. His example was solar geoengineering (SGE), a high-stakes climate engineering practice that can have profound ecological consequences. While the NAS issued a report endorsing a research program in SGE, arguing that research should be conducted to better understand the technical and governance issues, it is not clear what decision-making principles should guide science policy.
The Spring 2022 Science and Democracy Lecture is available for viewing online. It was co-sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
Banner image by Peter Steffen/Getty Images; faculty portraits by Martha Stewart, Drew Angerer/Bloomberg, Rose Lincoln, Stephanie Mitchell