The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has received a US$1-million donation from Lewis Branscomb (pictured), a physicist and former IBM vice-president, to set up a Center for Science and Democracy. The centre, to be launched on 17 May, aims to combine the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based union’s previous work beating back political interference in federal science, with an ongoing mission to ensure that US policy is based on sound scientific evidence.
“Lew Branscomb is obviously a giant in the science policy world and has been active for a long time, so if some of his efforts rub off on the UCS, then that would be a good thing,” says Roger Pielke Jr, who works with the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) at the University of Colorado in Boulder and is not involved with the UCS effort.
There are already innumerable programmes focused on science policy in the United States — including the CSTPR — but Pielke says that there’s plenty of room for more. “We do not want to replicate what others are already doing well,” adds UCS president Kevin Knobloch. “We’ll be a hybrid between a university and a think tank, and more aggressively apply the scholarship.” The American Association for the Advancement of Science also has a science-policy effort, but it focuses mainly on budget analysis, says Pielke.
The centre has so far raised $1.5 million for work over 3 years from private donors, and aims to eventually ramp up to a budget of $4 million a year. It will be hosted at current UCS offices with perhaps a dozen full-time staff, says Knobloch. They are hiring a director now.
The centre’s duties will include enlisting speakers from outside the science community, such as educators, religious leaders and chief executives, who can speak to the value of science in governance. It will also host 2–3 forums a year, where invited experts will speak to specific topics and help to hash out recommendations for action. These might focus on, for example, the challenges around communicating climate science, or the over-dependence of the US Food and Drug Administration on user fees from the pharmaceutical industry.
Pielke has been critical of the UCS’s efforts to promote scientific integrity in politics thus far. “As well-meaning as they were, a lot of their actions during the 2004 presidential election tended to intensify the partisan nature of the debate,” he says. They spearheaded a report on misuse of science by the Bush administration, he notes, but have not shone a spotlight on similar problems under Obama. “I would hope that the new effort wouldn’t be so partisan,” he says.
Pielke also argues that the direction of outreach in such efforts is often wrong-headed. “We need to bring a richer understanding of politics into our scientific debates, rather than the other way around,” he says.
Branscomb is no stranger to philanthropy; his family’s foundation already makes contributions to scholarships and libraries. This is his largest gift thus far, says Knobloch.
Update: The UCS strongly disputes Pielke’s assertion of partisanship and cites examples when it has criticized the Obama administration for disregarding the best available science while making decisions about, for example, air quality regulations and contraception.