Science Policy is Based on U.S. Exceptionalism

And it turns out that was a really bad idea

Thank you to everyone who has subscribed, shared, or otherwise supported this newsletter! And yes, you can totally forward it to your friends; even better, invite them to sign up so it lands straight in their in-box.

A crisis is good for one thing only, and that’s shattering unhelpful assumptions.

As a historian of science as it is practiced in the United States, I thought I already understood that U.S. exceptionalism was a lie, especially when it came to science. My second book, Freedom’s Laboratory, worked out in minute detail how most of the characteristics commonly associated with “American science” took shape through elaborate Cold War-era set pieces designed to highlight the benefits of Western-style political freedom. Above all else, I know that science has never been apolitical, not here, and not anywhere.

Or at least I thought I knew that. But based on my continued astonishment at the United States’ disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic, it turns out that I’ve been clinging to some less-than-useful assumptions about how science policy works. Even with the Trumpists in charge, even with conspiracy theories ascendant, even with neo-Nazis openly chanting racist taunts in the street, some part of me still believed in the smoothing effects of institutional continuity, in the legitimizing influence of career professionals.

Back in March, the very first issue of this newsletter pushed back at the idea that the U.S. federal government’s initial mishandling of the pandemic represented a conspiracy. Epidemics are hard to spot, I said! COVID-19 looks like flu, I said! “I refuse to believe (as of yet) that the entire scientific staff of the CDC is engaged in a political conspiracy,” I said!

That “as of yet” turned out to be really important. Some of the Trumpier aspects of the weaknesses in U.S. science policy became impossible to deny as early as a week after I pushed publish on that post; the “gotcha” quotes in Bob Woodward’s new book only bring specificity to what has been obvious for months. But Trumpism is a symptom, rather than a cause, of a broader rot in U.S. institutions. You don’t get to a point where armed militias are running checkpoints along evacuation routes of Oregon without something having gone deeply, deeply wrong in what is supposedly a rational, well-organized, functioning democratic society.

Most of the tools of science policy as conducted in the United States, meanwhile, continue to assume that decisions about science and technology policy are taking place within a liberal, democratic context. Even as scholars have developed critiques that incorporate institutional interests, capitalist imperatives, and structural racism into narratives about how science policy actually works, science policy as a field assumes that expertise and facts should and will matter to decision-making bodies that will ultimately be held accountable to the public via democratic political processes.

I’m not sure that these assumptions were ever valid, but they’re definitely not now. Where does one party’s embrace of conspiracy theories fit into this model? A leader’s open embrace of fascism?

Here are just a few of the jaw-dropping stories from recent weeks that have forced me to really, really look at science policy, c. 2020:

  • In preparation for formally withdrawing from the World Health Organization, the State Department ordered diplomatic officials to limit their interactions with WHO officials and seek prior approval before participating in WHO-related events.

  • Vaccine makers are under so much pressure from the CDC to release a COVID-19 virus before the November 3 election that nine pharmaceutical CEOs signed a pledge to “to uphold the integrity of the scientific process as they work towards potential global regulatory filings and approvals of the first COVID-19 vaccines.”

  • University officials across the country (too many to link to!) have declared themselves shocked, shocked! that college students prefer to interact with one another rather than stay in locked-down dorms; some seem to be timing the decision to pivot online to tuition refund deadlines.

  • The Trump administration ordered all federal agencies, which includes scientific agencies like the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and of course the FDA and the CDC, to end all racial sensitivity and bias trainings that incorporate critical race theory and/or the language of white privilege.

  • Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, hosted a Facebook Live video in which he accused scientists at the CDC of “sedition,” suggested these same scientists were forming a “resistance unit,” and warned of the growing threat of “left-wing hit squads.”

I keep having to remind myself that science policy, as a discipline, emerged from a very specific set of assumptions about U.S. exceptionalism. The original chapter outline for Freedom’s Laboratory’s included one on how the United States attempted to export its science policy model, down to the percentage of GDP spent on basic research, to countries around the world. In one such plan, U.S. advisors hoped to convince administrators in Thailand that the country’s future success depended on replicating the structures of the National Science Foundation, the National Academies of Science, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I dropped this chapter for reasons of obvious wonkishness; now I wonder if that was a mistake.

The United States is not the whole world, thank goodness. Those of us who think about science policy in this country need a different set of analytical tools to make sense of what has happened, what is happening, and what might happen after the election. This issue of the newsletter is my public commitment to broadening my horizons. In the meantime, please read this excellent piece by Indi Samarajiva on the racism in Western nations’ refusal to acknowledge poor nations’ success in containing COVID-19.

Share Never Just Science

Audra on the Internet: On Wednesday, September 14 (tomorrow!), the American Philosophical Society will be hosting a virtual discussion on Freedom’s Laboratory. It’s free, but you’ll have to register for the link!

Make a Plan to Vote! Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’re aware that Republican legislatures and Trump administration officials are making it as difficult as possible to vote. U.S. citizens, now would be a really great time to check your voter registration status and make a plan.