The Science of Science Policy: A Handbook – Edited by Kaye Husbands Fealing, Julia I. Lane, John H. Marburger III, and Stephanie S. Shipp
Article first published online: 14 SEP 2011
© 2011 by The Policy Studies Organization
Review of Policy Research
Volume 28, Issue 5, pages 548–550, September 2011
How to Cite
Nichols, R. W. (2011), The Science of Science Policy: A Handbook – Edited by Kaye Husbands Fealing, Julia I. Lane, John H. Marburger III, and Stephanie S. Shipp. Review of Policy Research, 28: 548–550. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-1338.2011.00523.x
- Issue published online: 14 SEP 2011
- Article first published online: 14 SEP 2011
The Science of Science Policy: A Handbook . Palo Alto : Stanford University Press . x + 386 pages. ISBN 9780804770781 , $75.00 cloth . Kaye Husbands Fealing, Julia I. Lane, John H. Marburger III, and Stephanie S. Shipp ( Eds .). 2011 .
In a candid 2005 speech, John Marburger, then Presidential Science and Technology Adviser, exposed one of the worst-kept secrets of the Washington science policy community: there is no compelling quantitative rationale for deciding how much the federal government should spend on research and development (R&D) in the aggregate, nor how best to distribute funds across specific areas of interest. In order to fill this gap, Marburger argued that “the nascent field of the social science of science policy needs to grow up, and quickly, to provide a basis for understanding” (Marburger, 2005). In response, the National Science Foundation (NSF) created a competitive grants program, Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP), which is creating a community of investigators who are committed to developing more rigorous models, data, and estimates of how public policy affects science and technology (S&T) outcomes. As part of this initiative, the SciSIP leadership called for an interdisciplinary survey of the current state of research in this new field, resulting in the publication of this volume, The Science of Science Policy: A Handbook.
Brilliantly edited by Kaye Husbands Fealing, the first head of the NSF's SciSIP program, and by Julia Lane, the present SciSIP leader, along with Marburger and Stephanie Shipp, this is a first-of-its-kind volume. With assessments by the editors and 23 experts on the issues, it will spark debate—by advocates and skeptics alike—and will push the envelope of responsible analysis across the nation's goals. The authors survey the state-of-debate in SciSIP relevant research (data, metrics, theory, and models) currently being pursued in the fields of economics, public policy, business and management, political science, and sociology. The book implicitly touches all fields of science, engineering, and mathematics—and all of the technically based programs to advance national missions from energy and defense to health and agriculture.
The current squeeze on federal spending amplifies the book's urgency. After all, what's the case for more public funding of S&T when so many people do not even have a job? Recall that federal spending for R&D this year is roughly $145 billion, while the total national public and private investment is about $400 billion, or 2.6% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Historically, 3% of GDP has been the “gold standard” in the United States and, increasingly, around the world. But these spending figures are arbitrary. Why not more or less?
President Obama and leaders from firms, universities, and governmental agencies repeatedly drive home the point that a prime national objective is to lift economic growth and productivity through S&T-based innovation. With stakes high, and rising, and with American strengths in what Adam Segal in a recent book calls the “software” of innovation, well-designed spending by the public sector on research and education is imperative for global competitiveness (Segal, 2011).
Marburger himself opens the book with a chapter entitled “Why Policy Implementation Needs a Science of Science Policy.” He shrewdly dissects the highly decentralized environment for running federal programs. In doing so, he emphasizes his “frustration over the inadequacy of data and analytical tools commensurate with science policymaking in a rapidly changing environment” (p. 15). More expansively, he asks: “If we think empirically based research is essential for learning about nature, or making useful products, then why should we not encourage research to build empirically validated foundations for effective science policy?” (pp. 17–18).
These questions frame the huge ambition of the project. Yet, this book does not shrink from honest confessions about the challenge. Outlined in detail with uncommonly jargon-free clarity, the authors in this volume sketch how difficult it will be to map the dynamics of S&T. For example, in Chapter 10, Adam Jaffee points out: “. . . causality is very difficult to pin down, as everything depends on more or less everything else . . . [and] . . . a lot of the important inputs and outputs are either unobservable or measured only with considerable error” (p. 195). Along the same lines, in Chapter 8, Irwin Feller explores “what is meant by a science” of science policy. Does this mean an aim to produce a “consensus about theories, modes, and data sufficient” to convince (federal) policy makers that they can make “better decisions” (p. 135)?
Feller also reminds us how Kenneth Arrow showed long ago that “a free enterprise economy [will] underinvest in invention and research . . . because it is risky and because the product can be appropriated only to a limited extent” (p. 142). Thus, it is all the more important that Washington assure prudent funding for basic research. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke is worried; in a recent speech he said that “the declining emphasis on basic research is somewhat concerning” (Bernanke, 2011). Washington has become the indispensable partner, neither silent nor patient, with the private sector. This is at the core of America's post-World War II strategy for federal appropriations for science. Nonetheless, as Sapolsky and Taylor in Chapter 3 cogently argue, it is the “politics of specific missions,” not any insightful reasoning, which “determines the rate and direction of investments.” A “war on cancer” is more compelling than a voyage of discovery (p. 31).
One NSF and National Institutes of Health-led national initiative described by the book is named Science and Technology for America's Reinvestment: Measuring the Effects on Innovation, Competitiveness, and Science (or more snappily dubbed STAR METRICS). It seeks nothing less than a vast collection of data and models about how the S&T world “works.” What investments lead to what outcomes (at least on a probabilistic basis), and how exactly does that happen? Impossible you say? Perhaps. Are the models of the economy, for instance, accurate enough to provide useful analysis? They are certainly deep, they aim for rigor, they help inform policy choices, and they have revealed at least provisional answers to many formerly inaccessible puzzles about the economy.
Past White House science advisers—from Vannevar Bush and George Kistiakowsky to Jerome Wiesner and Allan Bromley—were gifted advocates for the nation's technical base.1 Yet, much as they may have wished to have had sharper tools to buttress their testimony, they also might wonder whether any numerical matrix such as STAR METRICS could ever replace careful judgments of the excellence, originality, and persistence among competing investigators.
Indeed, in Chapter 17, Dan Sarewitz urges that a “significant qualitative component” be imposed when setting research agendas to fulfill the essential “social outcomes” (p. 285). For a dilemma arises, as Donald Stokes showed in his superb 1997 book on Pasteur's Quadrant, from the diverse motives of sponsors and scientists (Stokes, 1997). I am reminded of Goethe's remark about science: “To some it is the highest thing, a heavenly goddess; to others it is a productive cow who supplies them with butter.” But the question of what taxpayers understand, and will pay for, just cannot be blinked away.
And we also must consider the conceptually discouraging question of whether it will ever be possible to trace future trajectories of innovation. Path-breaking inventions and technological diffusions intersect and double back in unpredictable mazes. Surprise, after all, is desirable at the frontiers. Who anticipated that obscure research in microwave spectroscopy in the early 1950s would lead to scores of applications for lasers a generation later? No one. Does or could a “science” of science policy set prediction as a reasonable goal?
Other problems loom. For example, any “science of science (and innovation) policy” must come to terms with the rising importance of international considerations. American data collectors need standardized comparisons with other nations in order to benchmark against our racing competitors. Science policy also must help decide about S&T cooperation with developing countries. And what about the United States' share of the cost of global “big science” facilities? This book focuses, understandably, on domestic concerns and is largely silent on such painful international choices.
The SciSIP program is off to a good start though. The nation needs more analytical power to enable more reliable decisions on how best to ensure enough, and carefully allocate, its S&T resources. I recommend this extraordinary book to students and scholars seeking to get a handle on the current debate. The authors and editors have set a rock-solid foundation for future scholarship in S&T policy.