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Science, Advocacy, and Public Policy (MIT’s ‘The Future of Solar Energy’ revisited)

By Kent Hawkins -- February 23, 2016

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in high respect, as we should, we must be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific elite.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address, 1961

How should scientific reports be valued as input to public policy formulation? The beginning point must define advocacy and science from a considerable range of definitions as starting points.

Advocacy: active support or public recommendation of a cause.

– Collins English Dictionary (combining the terms advocate and advocacy) 

Science: the investigation of natural phenomena through observation, theoretical explanation, and experimentation, or the knowledge produced by such investigation. Science makes use of the scientific method, which includes the careful observation of natural phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis, the conducting of one or more experiments to test the hypothesis, and the drawing of a conclusion that confirms or modifies the hypothesis. (emphasis added)

– American Heritage Science Dictionary

The term ‘normal science’ will be used in the following to refer to the above science definition. The term ‘science’ will be used simply to describe anything that appears to be scientific.

The MIT report The Future of Solar Energy, which is one of a series on energy, has recently come to my attention, and is an example for consideration. There is no intent to single out this paper, and the notable credentials represented by its authors and the institution itself is recognized.

At over 350 pages, the MIT report is extensive, and no attempt has been made to review it in its entirety. Much of my assessment is based on the Foreword and Acknowledgments, Summary for Policymakers and Executive Summary, and what is expressed in these can be important in qualifying the analysis as normal science or encroaching on advocacy.

Roles of Normal Science and Advocacy for Public Policy

The role of normal science, here as elsewhere, is to objectively facilitate understanding of natural phenomena, and inevitably this entails levels of scientific uncertainty. Analyses could describe the range options in response, along with the relative merits of each, for example, relative risk, economic assessment and the likelihood of being realized within time frames. Care should be taken not to champion any option, which crosses over to advocacy. Simply put, science should be descriptive and not prescriptive. The latter is the responsibility of those whose role is formulating public policy, largely speaking politicians, their staffs, and hired consultants.

Prescriptive proposals are used in advocacy activities, particularly by special interest groups, and any such analysis, whether overly biased or not, will likely make some contribution to the objectives of facilitating understanding and can provide input to policy formulation. When science is invoked in this process, and when the boundary between science and advocacy blurs, it should be treated with considerable circumspection.

The extent that advocacy appears in science, and distorts it, is a spectrum from small to large. At one end of the spectrum is normal science and the rest is the presence of advocacy in increasing levels. Notwithstanding any overall bias, advocacy reports can be informative and useful in the detail provided.

Role of Policy Makers

The role of policy makers is to make decisions based on the available science, plus other factors that must be taken into account, such as social and political. Because the scientific aspects, including those dealing with projections, should not be stated with certainty, this means policy makers necessarily have to work with uncertainty. In this process they require suitably qualified personnel to assist them as described above. The process includes:

  • Vetting the available science, for example, by assessment of other reports cited in support and duplication of results.
  • Separating any input into what is normal science and what is not. The second category includes science that is found to be in some way in error, and/or advocacy to some degree. As already indicated, advocacy is valid input to policy formulation, but must be assumed to be biased and incomplete, regardless of how scientific it may appear.

Science used in Support of Public Policy

There are two versions. The first is when science takes public policy, existing or proposed, as input for a general scientific analysis on some subject. The second is when the purpose is specifically to affirm public policy. An example is the conduct of a literature review for any contradictory positions, which is arguably a limiting factor, but this cannot be completely discounted.

Warning Signs

Here are some indicators of the use of science that are questionable:

  • Scientific analysis results in making specific policy recommendations.
  • The level of scientific uncertainty is not clearly articulated, especially in summaries.
  • When scientific analysis uses current or planned policies as a major factor or is used for affirmation of these.
  • Claims that the science is ‘settled’. The only matter that is ‘settled’ is the public policy decided upon.
  • Reliance on specific technologies, that is, attempting to pick winners.
  • Insufficient coverage of the full range of future options.
  • Assumptions of a favorable societal response in support of findings, for example, demand management.
  • A scientific process that is not transparent or repeatable. An example is where claimed proprietary nature of some aspects, such as algorithms or data, prohibits their release.

Briefly turning to the MIT paper, the following are some notable quotes:

“…the use of solar energy to generate electricity at a very large scale is likely to be an essential component of any serious strategy to mitigate climate change.” (First paragraph of the Forward and Acknowledgements) 

“Massive expansion of solar generation worldwide by mid-century is likely a necessary component of any serious strategy to mitigate climate change.” (First paragraph of Summary for Policymakers) 

“The main goal of U.S. solar policy should be to build the foundation for a massive build-up of solar generation over the next few decades.” (Second paragraph of the Summary for Policymakers

I have reached my own conclusions: In reviewing a report that appears to be authoritatively scientific, it is suggested that the reader look for signs of advocacy, the degree of which should be a factor in assessing its findings.

I leave it to interested readers to formulate their own.

One Comment for “Science, Advocacy, and Public Policy (MIT’s ‘The Future of Solar Energy’ revisited)”

  1. Mark Krebs  

    I didn’t know Eisenhower that (front quotation). That statement rivals in significance with this one from the same speech: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex.”


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