The international March for Science movement has helped popularize the importance of science-based decision-making in government. But concerns about its absence are longer standing than many of us may realize. An exemplar of those concerns is a 1971 article that was written by future Nobel Prize winner Martin L. Perl and published in the prestigious journal Science.
In that article, Perl wrote that “since World War II, scientists and engineers have been going to Washington in increasing numbers to help the government make decisions” about “perilous technological problems”1Martin L. Perl, “The Scientific Advisory System: Some Observations,” Science 173, no. 4003 (September 24, 1971): 1211. – including how to stop the arms race, how to stop the destruction of the natural environment and how to raise the standard of living in the poor countries. However, Perl stated that the American government’s scientific advisory system had “substantially failed” to influence the administration’s decisions on “broad technical issues.”2Ibid, 1213.
The Stanford University physics professor then described a number of reason for that failure, ranging from “strong pressures” exerted by “industries, labor, unions, or municipalities”3Ibid. to a reluctance on the part of politicians to adopt policies that would expose them to “electoral difficulties.”4Ibid. In other words, if he was still alive, Perl could have written the same article today. But what’s even more troubling is that if the electorate had paid more attention to those concerns back in 1971 and if we had had the will to do something about them, many of the technological problems that bedevil our world today might never have happened.