Environmental Factor, August 2007, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Olden Calls for Public Involvement in Science Policy
By Eddy Ball
The Frontiers in Environmental Sciences Lecture Series featured a talk by NIEHS Director Emeritus Ken Olden, Ph.D., on August 17 in Rodbell Auditorium. Olden argued for increased public involvement in a lecture titled "Science Policy Setting and Evaluation in the Federal Government." The host of the lecture was David A. Schwartz, M.D.
As Schwartz noted in his introduction, Olden was responsible for spearheading transformative changes at NIEHS during his tenure as director. "After coming to the NIEHS," Schwartz said, "he quickly reversed the status of NIEHS from being one of the lowest institutes in terms of percent increases [in budget] to one of the highest.... He also developed very substantial programs during his tenure as Institute director."
As head of the Institute during 14 years of unprecedented growth and program expansion, Olden spoke from first-hand knowledge about the lack of effective decision-making in science policy at NIH. "I'm going to propose that the President and Congress should create a commission to develop a rational science policy for the nation." Without this central, integrated approach, he continued, "there cannot be interagency coordination."
Olden also pointed out that the nation currently does not have a consensus about what percentage of the gross domestic product should be allocated to scientific research, resulting in up-and-down cycles that make long-term planning almost impossible. "Stability and continuity are critical for intelligent planning," he said.
Looking back to 1945, Olden referred to the last example of truly integrated, long-term planning, a report to President Truman by Vannever Bush titled "The Endless Frontier." This document set scientific priorities emphasizing basic science that have not been fundamentally revisited for over sixty years. "Clearly, we need a new science policy" that addresses the country's current needs and offers the public a way to be involved in policy setting and program evaluation, he said.
In the 1945 report, Bush advocated letting scientists themselves set the priorities of science. However, according to Olden, in practice scientific leadership does not always rise to the occasion. He offered AIDS and environmental health as just two examples of the many scientific investments that came about because of public pressure to bring them to the forefront of scientific research - not because of advocacy by scientists.
Olden quoted a 1998 Institute of Medicine report on "Improving Priority Setting at the NIH," which emphasized the need for better collaboration with the American public. What we have today, Olden said, is a "closed system" in which scientists, operating as a classic "interest group," tend to support "the science that scientists want to do" and not necessarily "the science that the nation needs done."
"As a community of scientists, we need to turn the search light inward," Olden observed, "If we are willing to view our profession dispassionately, such an exercise can be liberating."
In the end, the public must be involved in the search for an effective means for involving all the stakeholders to help ensure that "the power of ideas will set the terms of the debate." He concluded that "the objective of the NIH really centers around public health impact... That's what we're here for." All of the other things we do, he argued, should further progress toward that objective and address the wider social and economic needs of the nation.