Science Forward: The Lasting Strength of Science Policy in Today’s New Normal

January, 2020

Michelle Wyman, National Council for Science and the Environment Executive Director

Scientific research has always been the backbone of environmental policymaking. And the interchange between science and policy is critical...the only way to preserve life as we know it. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, arguably the single most impactful environmental regulation in U.S. history. By 1990 it was saving 160,000 lives per year, projected to rise to 230,000 in 2020. Not coincidentally, it was also the first to explicitly integrate the process of scientific discovery with policymaking. The 1970 Clean Air Act is itself actually a set of amendments to the 1963 Clean Air Act, which replaced the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act. The 1955 Act authorized the Surgeon General to conduct research on air pollution—EPA did not yet exist. The 1963 Act stated as one of its purposes and requirements to “initiate and accelerate a national research and development program” to protect the nation’s air resources. For the first time, if the Administrator of the EPA determined that air pollution was causing people harm, then they were required to collect and publish so-called “criteria” based on the most recent scientific findings on the nature and extent of negative health impacts from the pollutants in question. These criteria were required to be updated “whenever necessary to reflect accurately developing scientific knowledge.” Thus were criteria air pollutants born, as was the legal basis that current scientific knowledge be used to designate them and to determine quantitatively harmful concentrations. 


Illustration showing main points of essay
Graphic recording of Michelle Wyman's keynote at the NCSE 2020 Annual Conference. 


The pedigree of the Clean Air Act from 1955 through 1970 and 1990 to today is a set of laws explicitly based on scientific research. This is a terrific example of the scientific basis of environmental decision-making. Policy such as this gives structure to the application of science and technology; durable policy is developed through evidence-based knowledge. Very often when there are concerns that meeting some environmental target will be too difficult or costly, the combination of policy requirements and scientific advancements obviates those worries. 

Scientific research at its heart is the search for truth and understanding. The first step is the observation of facts we know, or think we know, and from there begins the cycle of asking questions, challenging assumptions, testing, refining, and discovering. We pass on what we learn to humankind and to new generations of scientists at our schools and universities who take the baton and begin the cycle for themselves, starting the next race at the last one’s finish line, or who simply grab the baton and keep running on their own path of research and discovery. Students become the new practitioners and teachers of science, adding their own perspectives to the process, often leading us in new and unexpected directions.

Often, we engage in research for its own sake. We don’t always know where research will lead us. But sometimes, whether by happy accident or dogged pursuit, we find ourselves with the solution to a problem or a key piece of an environmental puzzle that cries out for real-world application. And often scientific discovery leads to not only one finding but rather several—both intended and unintended. The productivity of science is a low risk, high reward enterprise. But unlike inventors who can use markets as a vehicle to spread their innovations, or surgeons who practice and teach their new techniques to other surgeons, if we want environmental science to really change the world and save lives, policy is often the best and sometimes the only method we have. Policy is the vehicle and the practice. We are not saying that all scientists should become policymakers (though some do) or that scientists should be telling policymakers what policies they should adopt. Rather, scientists have a moral imperative to make sure that their science is accessible, timely, rigorous, and a key component used by policymakers to inform their decisions.


The Clean Air Act paved the way for the future of evidence-informed decision-making. Though it was something of a regulatory revolution in 1963...nearly 60 years later, the notion that we would set regulatory standards on the basis of current scientific understanding seems commonplace, because it is. We have followed a similar model in NEPA, TSCA, RCRA, and Superfund. Pick your favorite environmental regulation, and you will see reflected in it the requirement of a science-based finding of endangerment, as well as concentrations, exposure limits, or similar thresholds based on scientific research to inform standards that policies must then enforce. Looking beyond the U.S. experience, the Montreal Protocol is most often held up as a model of international cooperation, and rightfully so. It is the only treaty so far ratified by every nation on the planet. The research, for which its authors would eventually receive the Nobel Prize, was published in 1974, and 13 years later, the world had collectively agreed to phase out the use of ozone-depleting substances. Without it, the ozone layer would have collapsed by 2050, with an additional 280 million cases of skin cancer and 1.5 million premature deaths in the U.S. alone.


All of these policies are important, imperfect, and incomplete. They are often difficult to enforce; they have loopholes and legally imprecise language that can take years or even decades to nail down in court. Flaws and all, this process has saved millions of lives, protected ecosystems, economies, and natural resources. It is the process we have. It will continue, and we need it more today than ever. Not only to deal with challenges that we create for ourselves, but also to simply advance worldwide well-being. We need ongoing research to add species to endangered lists and to find ways to take them off. But only, of course, after we develop sound policies to make it possible. We need to understand the impact of toxic substances and find substitutes to replace them and reduce the damage caused by others like methane and CO2. But only policy can move those discoveries to action—into the market at the speed and scale necessary. We can’t make sound policy without sound science, and policy is the outlet through which science can change the world. While it is easy to see how science can direct policy, the opposite is also true. In the literal sense, policy decisions often drive scientific research through funding, but policy processes can also provide a signal to scientists to let them know where to shine their lights.  

We all know it can be difficult and sometimes distasteful to get drawn into discussions that politicize our research. But turning scientific knowledge into change doesn’t happen on its own. To help make evidence-based policymaking a sustained reality, we have to build relationships and trust and share information in the ways that policymakers need. If you ever doubt the power of trust and the ability of researchers and educators to change policy, watch the video of Fred Rogers testifying before congress in 1969. You’ll see him turn around the Committee Chairman, a self-described “tough guy,” convincing him in less than seven minutes to increase funding for public television instead of cutting it.


We live in a different world now than we did in 1969, but the fact that our jobs have gotten tougher means that we need to work harder and smarter, not concede the point. Specifically, we can’t stand aside and allow the role and value of science in society to be bastardized, questioned, or otherwise suggested as unreliable, unstable, or partisan. In fact, science is the foundation upon which durable, lasting policies have guided societies through cycles of development and evolution for decades and centuries.  

It seems that every year we reel off a list of climate impacts that are bigger, faster, and stronger than predicted. Effectively addressing climate change is taking longer than the policy process that led to the Montreal Protocol. All said, fundamentally rewiring the global energy system can’t be an overnight exercise...though it does need to change, and will.  The science is overwhelming and provides compelling evidence of mounting costs to human life, the environment, and the planet each year.  


Let us remember—just as the first generation of climate scientists began as a generation of climate skeptics, our first generation of climate policymakers still has more than its fair share of the unconvinced. As with the scientific community, the scientific evidence is piling up and breaking down the arguments against climate policy, effectively shrinking the number of remaining skeptics, making the eventuality of climate policy increasingly certain. And while we wait for politics to catch up to reality, there is always more work to be done. Can we invent our way out of the problem? How do we protect those among us in greatest need? How do we support progress by less developed countries while avoiding the worst mistakes that we have made? How can our scientific community increase its service to decision-makers leading in those parts of the country and the world whose constituents are most at risk and most vulnerable?

Every scientist at least since Newton has understood that they stand on the shoulders of giants to see a little further. The most successful and prominent in the field are reluctant to declare themselves giants (at least in public), but even the most humble should recognize that collectively we are the new giants and we are the shoulders on which others will stand. It’s no less true for policy. It has its giants in the Clean Air Act, the Montreal Protocol, NEPA, and others. New world-changing policies are being developed, refined, tested, and re-worked as we speak. These will stand not only on the shoulders of policies we have deployed in the past but also, critically, on the science we are working on today and in the future.

No matter your job, I hope you seek out ways to work with scientists and decision-makers in your community, and beyond, to demonstrate the imperative role and value of science in service to society, the environment and the future of the world.