The Role of Science in Public Policy: Higher Reason, or Reason for Hire?



The traditional vision of the role science should play in policy making is of a two stage process of scientists first finding out the facts, and then policy makers making a decision about what to do about them. We argue that this two stage process is a fiction and that a distinction must be drawn between pure science and science in the service of public policy. When science is transferred into the policy realm, its claims to truth get undermined because we must abandon the open-ended nature of scientific inquiry. When we move from the sphere of science to the sphere of policy, we pick an arbitrary point in the open-ended scientific process, and ask our experts to give us the answer. The choice of the endpoint, however, must always be arbitrary and determined by non-scientific factors. Thus, the two stages in the model of first finding the facts, and then making a decision about what to do, cannot be clearly separated. The second stage clearly affects the first. This conclusion will have implications about existing scientific policy institutions. For example, we advocate that the environmental assessment process be radically overhauled, or perhaps even let go. It will be our position that ultimately a better model for the involvement of scientists in public policy debates is that of being participants in particular interest groups (“hired guns”), rather than as supposedly unbiased consultants to decision-makers.


environment environmental assessment philosophy public participation public policy science 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Contemporary Studies and PhilosophyWilfrid Laurier University, BrantfordBrantfordCanada
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Religious StudiesCape Breton UniversitySydneyCanada

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