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Is Public Input On Science And Technology Policy Worthwhile?

In the throes of a pandemic that won’t quit, many Americans are anxious, but not only about COVID-19; they’re also fearful about vaccines, chemicals, and even (non-existent) “chemtrails,” to name just a few. Inexplicably, even after more than a million U.S. deaths from COVID-19, the U.S. population remains under-vaccinated and under-boosted. While California has gotten more than 70% of its population fully vaccinated, a large number of states – including Missouri, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Wyoming, Indiana – have barely reached 50%, in spite of exhortations by political leaders and medical professionals.

According to Naval War College professor Tom Nichols, we’re witnessing the “death of expertise”: “a Google-driven, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” 

The pandemic has brought armchair epidemiologists and infectious disease experts out in droves, and especially with policies in flux, this is not a trivial problem. It confounds policymakers and regulators who feel compelled to seek non-expert input on decisions, wasting time and taxpayers’ money, and making them increasingly reluctant to contravene even uninformed, misguided vox populi.

Science is not democratic. The citizenry does not get to vote on whether a whale is a mammal or a fish, or on the boiling point of water; legislatures cannot repeal the laws of nature, although legislators in Indiana once tried to redefine the mathematical constant pi.

While it is certainly important to improve the public’s appreciation of the methodology of science and enable non-experts to understand the rationale for government policy, it is less useful, and generally counterproductive when they are asked to help formulate policy.

A frequently cited model for direct citizen involvement is Denmark’s “consensus conferences,” where non-experts are invited to bring the basic “common sense” they have derived from their “worries, visions, general view and actual everyday experience.”

This approach, which the Danes have applied to any number of highly technical scientific issues – including food irradiation, molecular genetic engineering, environmental chemicals, and human-genome mapping – has consistently led to hyper-precautionary regulation and innovation-destroying legislation.

The experience of many other nations hasn’t been any more promising. In 2003, the British government, local authorities and other organizations spent a half-million pounds to hold hundreds of public discussions and focus groups in an attempt to gain insight into the public’s views on genetic engineering.

The result? As Mark Henderson, the science correspondent for The Timesput it:

The exercise has been farce from start to finish … One of the six meetings … spent much of its time discussing whether the SARS virus might have come from [genetically modified] cotton in China. It’s more likely to have come from outer space.

Henderson noted that the meetings were dominated by anti-technology zealots, the only faction that was organized and impassioned enough about the issue to attend. We see that as well in the scripted, troll factory-generated comments in response to U.S. government requests for public comment on many proposed regulations.

Other examples come from the U.S. National Science Foundation, whose primary mission is to support laboratory research across many disciplines. Two decades ago, NSF started funding a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which ordinary, previously uninformed Americans were brought together to solve thorny questions of technology policy.

For NSF’s citizens’ forum on nanotechnology (science conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers), organizers selected “from a broad pool of applicants a diverse and roughly representative group of 74 citizens to participate at six geographically distinct sites across the country.” Participants were informed by “a 61-page background document – vetted by experts – to read prior to deliberating.”

The result was an incoherent and – despite the 61 pages of background – set of conclusions and recommendations. Two general themes emerged, however: The public was suspicious, worried, and generally hostile to the technologies, but if they resulted in breakthroughs, the participants also wanted to be sure the government would “guarantee access to them if they prove too expensive for the average American.”

Despite this dismal record, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) still thinks public consultations on highly technical, arcane issues are a good idea, and two years ago announced three more of them, on these subjects: (1) gene drives, which “comprise genetic elements that can pass traits among sexually reproducing organisms at a frequency greater than the rate expected by simple Mendelian inheritance”; (2) synthetic biology, which “employs an engineering‐based approach to build novel biological systems which have potential food and feed applications”; and (3) guidelines concerning certain techniques for gene editing, or genome editing – specifically, “the biosafety of plants developed through type 1 and type 2 Site‐Directed Nucleases (SDN‐1 and SDN‐2) and oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis.”

These exercises will undoubtedly replicate the failures of their predecessors.  

Politicians like to pay lip service to public engagement on regulatory issues, even if those issues require understanding of sophisticated and complex issues. Former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman once said that there must be public trust “in the regulatory process that ensures thorough review [of genetically engineered plants] – including complete and open public involvement.”

The question is, how does one secure that trust? Should we conduct a referendum on the approval for marketing of a second-generation COVID-19 vaccine or a new pesticide, or for the design of a nuclear power plant?

The bottom line is that decades of soliciting public engagement on overregulated entities and products such as nuclear power, pesticides, and nanotechnologies have failed to gain public trust and acceptance. Nor has the subordination of evidence-based policymaking to emotional and political considerations either increased public acceptance or encouraged innovation. Let’s stop doing it.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a research associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.

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13 comments

  • Certainly public comments are valuable. There are thousands of former scientists, clinicians, and researchers now retired who had exemplary careers and contributed honest research in all areas. None has an axe to grind or a bias designed to lock in further grant money. After the very poor performance shown over the previous two years by quasi experts, the thoughts of experienced people are overdue.

    • You might want to re-read the article. The point was the general uselessness of non-experts opining on policies driven by arcane science or technology issues. Nowhere did I dispute that retired experts can still often make valuable contributions.

  • This article suggests that the citizenry has no standing to weigh in on such topics as “mandated COVID injections”? Written like a true NIH disciple. How much did the writer make in royalties from Big Pharma during his years there?

  • Subordination? What is Dr. Miller talking about? The professional bureaucracy, and certainly NIH, is subject to virtually no discipline and zero accountability. Elected officials have almost no tools to remove badly behaving bureaucrats who conspire to avoid even FOIA requests. To remove them completely from minimal contact with the public would simply help erect an authoritarian health-obsessed surveillance society we seem to be racing to embrace.

    I will agree with Dr. Miller that a lot of crazy testimony occurs in hearings and written comments, but one has to tolerate such in a free society. I also have seen the worst of bureaucracy on one hand as an elected official tasked with oversight of a public institution and on the other hand as a concerned citizen treated with near contempt by the officials running public meetings ostensibly called for public input, but were in fact farces. I was often lied to as an elected official, and any attempt to unearth the truth would have bureaucrats filling complaints about my meddling. As a citizen I have a wealth of expertise gained over five decades in a braod range of endeavors which is over-ridden in public hearings by the most ludricrous counter testimony imaginable organized to arrive at a planned decision.

    Finally, during the recent pandemic a huge amount of superstition and magical thinking was promoted by Dr. Miller’s vaunted public health officials and science journalists. Nonsense and poor thinking cuts two ways.

    Dr. Miller sounds like an imperious elitist who is simply annoyed by civil liberty. Thank you I&I for exposing such thinking.

    • “[A]nnoyed by civil liberty?” Oh, please. Nowhere did I question the right of people to express their opinions on whether the Earth is flat or pi=3.00. But I would object to the government convening focus groups to discuss such issues — as in some of the examples in the article. (See, especially, the Mark Henderson quote.)

      • I admire you showing up to at least address comments, even if you appeal to the most contrived of controversies to do so — pi=3.00? Oh, please. No one in their right mind would convene a public hearing or focus group on such a question.

        Indeed science is not a democracy, but how science impacts our lives, what uses it is put to? Those are not scientific topics. Science has no tools to apply to these questions other than to proclaim itself an authority (Unscientific in fact). Democracy is the best we can do, and that demands public input and assent.

        Since you are a public health alumnus, let me just say that germs being ever present, and frightening to most people, they provide the perfect reason to run a perpetual disease surveillance/testing tyranny within an unaccountable civil service. You may scoff, I look at the example of past couple of years and fear what may come. I wish some of you could subject yourselves to a little introspection rather than rail at our alleged ignorance.

        Thanks for reading.

      • Most of us were not born in 1897, when the Indiana legislature had the good sense to reject the bill redefining pi as 3.2. So we missed that bit of news. More likely we were watching Fox and Homer Simpson, when daughter Lisa mentioned pi:

  • The unfortunate truth is that the Expert class is riddled with disguised self-interests, charlatans, and even Nobel Prize winners who have been dead-wrong. Experts may posture otherwise, but being Expert is not the same as being infallible, God-like or always right. The writer seems to have a Horse in this race (i.e. getting 100% of the population up to their 4th & 5th booster vaxxes). My non-expert opinion may not count in the author’s ideal world ruled by experts. But when it comes to value, efficacy, long-term safety and cost-benefits, I can find no convincing body of scientific evidence that all the vaxxing and lockdowns of the worldwide economy have produced superior benefits in terms of physical and mental health, economics or anything else for the society at large. Though personally, I can count some benefits from the lockdowns, such as ending my restaurant spending.

    It is all in the realm of faith. It used to be Faith in God or Faith in collective individual judgment (e.g. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand). Now it is Faith in Incomplete Science as interpreted by the self-designated Experts, the CCP and politicians to get it right. From my non-expert vantage point, we are all guinea pigs in this global COVID experiment, where the shifting expert opinions of Fauci et al. and their political allies seek to replace Freedom of Choice and explicit Informed Consent with their shifting Mandates, manipulations and coercion. Freedom of individual choice is indeed pesky, and a barrier for imposing authoritarian or totalitarian regimes and remedies for public health and perceived economic ills.

    The writer’s arguments pushing Vaxx Equity among the States seem to mirror the Left’s Climate Emergency arguments to put faith in their designated Climate Experts/Politicians and Computer Models predicting Climate Apocalypse. Being Experts, should we not do as they say and scrap fossil fuels and convert to Electric Vehicles by 2030 as mandated by California’s governor (and no doubt supported by other renowned climate experts such as John Kerry and Al Gore). To hell with those dissenting meteorologists and physicists, who are at best pilloried and ignored.

  • Like many things it depends, some of the science you describe is, as you suggest, useless to have average people discussing it. As Majerus suggests, advantages could be gained from inviting retired or not active in the field anymore scientists to attend, to balance against confirmation bias.
    In the science of climate change, it has been highly political from the start and the public smells a political rat! Especially when there is no discussion allowed between dissenting scientists.
    Generally I agree with you but the battle for the truth in science must never be influenced by politics. That way is most probably worse than letting Joe Public have a say in complex science.

  • I’m not sure but around the end of the third of the 20th Century it became popular that the government policies would be best formulated by experts in some esoteric field. To me this has become general policy. Administrative agencies write regulations that have not only the force of law but are adhjucated by the agency writing them. The experts know their field but they don’t know the overall effect of them on the total societal and economic milieu. We had total Covid lockdowns, with the intent of stopping the spread. The experts at the CDC had no concern that restaurants, small businesses, tourist industry and all the airline personnel and support economy would be nearly destroyed. Now the airlines can’t find pilots, the tourist industry can’t find workers and the whole economy is in trouble. This is why people other than “experts” need to be involved in POLICY. The CDC did their job, although whether their actions were right or not is still up for grabs, but then when shown the results on childhood mental health, plummeting school performance, general economic function they can say that that was another agencies responsibility. That’s our federal government.

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