by: Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D.

Compared to the rancor and reflexive partisanship that mark the U.S. congress, the California State Legislature appears to be an oasis of pragmatic problem solving.

Each day state elected officials make policy decisions that affect our lives on a wide-range of topics such as public health, air quality, water, energy, transportation and innovation. Perspectives and values differ widely among the legislators, but all can agree that policy should take advantage of scientifically sound information. In fact, science is important both as a body of evidence and as a systematic and critical way of judging relevant evidence.

Too often, however, scientific facts and evidence are missing or misrepresented in policy deliberations. For example, despite broad consensus within the scientific community, we see debate about the facts related to topics like vaccine safety, genetically-modified organisms, and climate change.

While relatively few scientists seek public office, the exceptions are especially valuable participants in policy deliberations. Another way to infuse more science into legislative deliberations is to place Ph.D. scientists in key staff positions in legislative offices and committees.

This is precisely the idea behind the Science Fellows program of the California Council on Science and Technology. Initiated in 2008 with seed funding from the Moore Foundation, the CCST Science Fellows program is modeled after the highly respected program in Washington, D.C. managed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Each year, the program enables ten scientists and engineers to experience a year of public service and provide the California State Legislature with highly skilled, science-savvy staff work.

This month, I had the opportunity to meet members of the seventh cohort of fellows and speak with Bill Quirk, the sole California State Assembly member with a PhD in the Natural Sciences and a champion for the fellows program. “The scientific method is important,” said Assemblymember Quirk. “People do respect the expertise that scientists provide in helping them make up their mind.”

Our legislators have a tough job. They must routinely navigate high-stakes issues that depend on arcane technical facts and scientific knowledge. Rather than relying on self-interested and one-sided information from lobbyists and advocates, the opportunity to tap staff scientists and engineers provides a clear advantage and a path to sounder, evidence-based policy making.


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