Neil Wollman

Neil Wollman

We Desperately Need Science To make Our Country Work Better

By Neil Wollman

As our problems mount, we need to double down on use of science in government and society as a whole

With the constant deluge of news generated from the Trump Administration’s breakneck policy decisions, it almost went unnoticed that recently the President put, perhaps, the final nail in the coffin for federal government environmental concern. He announced the disbanding of the Federal Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment.

But this should not be looked at in isolation. It fits a pattern of disregard for science and scientists; from Paris Climate Agreement withdrawal to research funding budget cuts to the appointment of Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry to key environmental posts, and to the lack of appointments to the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

History has taught us that investments in science pay dividends both economically and in results. The improvement in quality of life has been a result of U.S. investments in the natural and behavioral sciences--from developments in life-saving vaccines and the internet to evidence-based interventions in mental health and education. Plus the jobs created by this investment helps make the United States a thought leader on science and R & D, as well as an economic powerhouse.

Conversely, the recent measles outbreak in Minnesota shows what happens when science is ignored or undermined by anti-science voices. This is not to say science and scientists hold ready answers to all of society’s problems. But, there is a history of science having practical benefits for society and is usually our best option.

Thus, rather than backtracking on science, we need to double down as societal problems seem only to increase. Scientific reasoning and application must be infused at all levels of government and society -- be it in our economic system, in our educational system, or in providing social services and ameliorating societal ills such as reducing prejudice, inequality, and violence. By placing an emphasis on data and “what works,” we could more effectively determine what to include in the federal budget, state criminal justice codes, and local school curricula.

This will be costly administratively and financially when it is front-loaded, but doing so will save money not too far down the road by not wasting money on programs and enterprises that don’t work, and by preventing costly problems that would normally emerge later. And measures can be introduced over time.

Fortunately, there is already interest in such evidence-based policy in Congress. Bipartisan legislation led to formation of the Commission on Evidence -Based Policymaking that recently released its report. Also there are growing number of advocacy groups promoting such concerns with government officials. The National Prevention Science Coalition, has proposed a comprehensive user-friendly, user-useful, and interactive automated clearinghouse of evidence-based interventions, incorporating federal bureau databases, that could dramatically improve the likelihood that governmental agencies would work scientifically and effectively.

Congress could also more easily determine what to fund. Let us also re-visit unpassed legislation promoted many years back by then Senator Walter Mondale for a National Social Report on the performance of social programs, and an accompanying Council of Social Advisors (based on the Council of Economic Advisors). These would provide direct input to the President, though we realize that it would likely be taken more seriously by future Administrations.

There may also be another way to promote both the natural and behavioral sciences even when the Federal government is lagging behind. There is now a bipartisan coalition of states/governors that is working to continue compliance with the Paris Accord. This may serve as a model to promote science defacto nationally on other issues, as well. As a complement to governmental scientific advocacy, Anthony Biglan promotes a Grand Coalition of advocacy groups working for a more humane and science based society.

Efforts such as March for Science have focused on promoting the value of science in policymaking. Additionally there are now a number of scientists or others running for office in 2018 with an explicit interest in promoting science. Potentially this can usher in fact-grounded elected officials pushing their colleagues toward data rather than intuition. Luckily there are many tools from science itself, particularly the social sciences, for influencing government officials and public opinion.

That will be needed to help bring government and society to promote a science-based society. We all stand to benefit.

Neil Wollman; Ph. D. is a Senior Fellow, Bentley Service-Learning Center; Bentley University; Waltham, He may be contacted at

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