Over the past two months, Congress has demonstrated how powerful it can be to make decisions based on science. The Create Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act (CHIPS), the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT), the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act all have a substantive basis in science and all have been enacted.
Many scientists including me have advocated that public policy decisions should be based on science. Of course, advocacy doesn’t always lead to action. But these four pieces of legislation offer some important lessons about what it means in practice. So, what can we learn?
Science will never be the sole input to policy
At least in my experience, public policy decisions are never based solely on scientific input and evidence. After all, we live in a constitutional democracy and the voices of the governed must be part of the decisionmaking process. But while scientific evidence will not dictate that only one policy approach is viable, it can and should provide the guide rails for policy.
Take the PACT Act which expands health care for veterans exposed to toxins, increases screenings for exposure and fundamentally changes the burden of proof of exposure to the Veterans Administration adopting a presumption of exposure and providing care.
Scientific evidence told us that veterans exposed to toxic pollution from sources such as burn pits were suffering serious health consequences linked to their military deployment. To be sure, there are some who hold a different view or argue that other factors may be involved such that causality can’t be proven. Both things can be true based on the evidence. But the policy decision should be based on what is best for the public, of course including veterans and their families.
Does the PACT Act address every problem that veterans face from toxic exposure? Of course not. But it does respond to the scientific evidence and to the views of veterans themselves. It provides an opportunity for veterans to get the care that they need. Science played a role, and public advocacy did too.
Science and incentives together
The CHIPS Act makes important investments in research, development and production of semiconductors in the United States. Ninety percent of semiconductor production is currently based outside of the United States and the global pandemic exposed the structural risks that fact poses to the US economy.
Boosting semiconductor research plays an important role in restoring the capacity to innovate in this highly competitive industry. So, too, does the bill’s provisions for workforce development and incentives to boost more domestic semiconductor production.
But it isn’t as though it will transform high-tech manufacturing quickly. After all, it was industry’s policy choices to offshore most manufacturing to save costs. It will be private industry’s decision whether to onshore again. The US government is merely aligning incentives both financial and in intellectual property. But at least it is doing so based on an economic analysis of the industry.
You can’t always get what you want…
But if you try sometime, you might get (some of) what you need. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act can’t be anyone’s idea of real control over the guns that are everywhere in American society. It’s a political compromise with some simple changes to gun laws and some new investment in mental health services.
Both these steps are sensible and follow some of the scientific evidence on gun violence and policy in America. Nowhere near sufficient. But increased background checks for young gun purchasers and keeping guns from those already known to exhibit violent behavior may help. And it would be hard to argue that increased support for mental health programs and community efforts to reduce gun violence is a bad thing. Science-based policy? That doesn’t mean that the legislation took on all of the evidence. But at least there is no longer a ban on the government researching gun violence. Small steps indeed.
We can’t handle the truth…
But maybe we aren’t ignoring it any longer. The Inflation Reduction Act makes some serious investments in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming. The range of investments is broad, reaching from clean transportation to farming, renewable energy to environmental justice. All of it and more is needed. All of it and more responds to the scientific evidence of a warming world caused by human activity and the need for the US to take bolder action.
Are we done? Far from it. Climate caused emergencies, particularly impacting the most vulnerable communities, are very much still with us and aren’t going away. But maybe we are finally recognizing that scientific evidence should guide policy more than unsubstantiated opinion and orchestrated disinformation campaigns to confuse the public.
Extreme heat, drought and wildfires have been the story of this summer. But the summer has also seen some real progress for science-based policy. And advocacy for those policies from the public including the science community. We aren’t done. We aren’t even close. The opposition to action that serves the public isn’t going away.
It’s hard to be an advocate for science-based policies and then see enacted what too often feels like half measures, or too little too late. But to stop advocating for what is needed probably means a halt to any action.
So keep at it. I will.