May 29, 2007
Lawyer Defends Science Against Politics
It is in the nature of science never to be done. One discovery leads to another, and we need to recognize that. So said law professor Rena Steinzor at a special forum held at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL) in Solomons Island, Maryland on May 23. CBL and the Horn Point Laboratory, both part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, provide the setting for an annual program that brings undergraduate students from around the country to spend a summer working side-by-side with marine scientists.
As a lawyer among biologists and chemists, Steinzor's appearance was unusual, but she came with a clear message. Policymakers need to "stay out of the way" of researchers so they can do their job, she said. And one of their most important jobs, she noted, was to help us understand what is happening to planet earth.
"The preponderance of evidence is that global climate change is very real," she told her audience of students and research faculty, and she detailed the ways in which politics had unfortunately interfered with the progress of research into this phenomenon.
The incursion of politics can be bizarre, she noted. A Congressional hearing on climate change featured as a primary witness, for example, Michael Creighton, author of Jurassic Park and other books, including State of Fear, a treatise on climate change. While Creighton, a novelist and journalist, has medical training, Steinzor said that he is not a climatologist.
Steinzor's examples drew from controversies as diverse as chemical herbicides and cigarettes. Many of these examples come from the book Rescuing Science from Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2006), which she co-authored with Wendy Wagner. That work features chapters by a number of policy experts and a foreword by Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of the journal Science.
Steinzor points to several underlying problems facing scientists today, including the increased privatization of research (which can mean more control over findings), the persecution of scientists who hold controversial views, and the attacking of science one study at a time in order to discredit an entire body of work.
A research professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, Steinzor is also a founder and member of the Center for Progressive Regulation (CRP). For a summary of Rescuing Science from Politics, see CRP or Cambridge University Press.
For more information on Maryland Sea Grant's summer research program for undergraduates, supported by the National Science Foundation, see the REU webpage.
-- Jack Greer