Emeritus Harvard professor and physicist Lewis M. Branscomb has earned quite the bipartisan political pedigree during his 50-plus year career in the world of science policy. He served on various presidential committees and panels under Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Reagan. He also built a modest fortune, working for a spell at IBM and investing wisely, he said, in a North Carolina high tech company. His family foundation has been spending it building gardens and funding libraries. But Branscomb said his daughter has been bugging him about what they should do to remember his life and his work after he dies.
“I thought about it for a while and, thought, that’s dumb,” he said in an interview Tuesday in Harvard Square. “If they were going to do something to remember me when I die, I would rather they do it now, while I’m here.”
So, he asked himself: “How do I make our democracy more rational, fact based, more trustworthy and more open.”
His conclusion: Spend $1 million to set up a program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Cambridge-based non-profit that describes itself as “the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world.”
Now based in La Jolla California, Branscomb’s camped out at the Charles Hotel this week for a series of events, including Thursday’s east coast launch of the The Center for Science and Democracy, to be held Thursday at the American Academy of Arts in Sciences in Somerville, Massachusetts. (See Nature News post for more on the new center.)
The event will honor Branscomb and feature a panel discussion on science and democracy with Lawrence S. Bacow, former Tufts University presidnet; Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and National Cancer Institute director.
Branscomb brings more than an academic perspective to the issue. He ran the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy school for most of the 1990s. But, he was vice president and chief scientist at IBM from 1972 to 1986. All of this added up to a strong interest in the link between science and democracy.
“The authors of the constitution were well educated people at the time of the Enlightenment,” he said. “The prevailing philosophy at the time was: High competence in fact-based decision making.”
So, without a king or an authoritarian government, a democratic government relies on the voters to be well-informed in order to keep their elected leaders accountable, he said.
“Science requires that people share what they do with all of their competition and colleagues, that their own work is based on experiment…that is data, and that they have to high degree of trust in the community. Those same three properties are essential in democracy. “
Branscom said he became concerned that the U.S. government was moving away from those principles during the George W. Bush administration. During that time, government scientists complained that political appointees were editing their work based on politics. So he got involved with the UCS, which has been documenting what it sees as the abuse of science in the name of politics. Or as he puts it:
“Tracking how the government deals with science in an honest way.”
Most scientists stay out of politics, Branscomb said, appropriately satisfied that if they ensure scientific literacy, people will be equipped to understand issues like climate change. But, now he sees that approach as “idealistic but not practical… The public very much needs helping in thinking about these issues.”
That way, he said, they can keep their elected officials accountable, in theory.
“Unfortunately, we have many politicians who don’t listen to their constituents,” Branscomb said. “Now, they are listening to their lobbyists. That’s the problem with money and politics. …It’s really not a science problem. But it’s terribly important. “