Last week, I had an op-ed in the local paper here in Wilmington. In the article I call to question the supposed non-political activity of the Science Panel of the Coastal Resources Commission. That is, in my opinion, the Science Panel has long been quite politically active.
Late last month, Dr. Stan Riggs, a well respected scientists at East Carolina University, publicly resigned from his position with the Science Panel- a panel he helped to create about 20 years ago. Riggs cited a fairly common lament, policymakers are fiddling with scientific methods to produce facts useful for their policy agenda. The agenda, at the moment, claims Riggs is unrestricted coastal building. Though admittedly, this does not seem far fetched given the amount of building in the region at the moment.
When policymakers fiddle with the scientific method of their independent expert panel, the panel is no longer independent and people become skeptical of the information produced.
Speaking to just this affect, Dr. Sid Shapiro from Wake Forest University wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer and referenced policymakers' doings as an act of politicizing science. I agree with Dr. Shapiro. But, I also think the science panel is actively engaged in policy advocacy (if not also politicizing science).
Riggs' letter demonstrated great dissatisfaction with recent policy changes and a conflation of scientific facts with personal values. It is evident throughout but I'll pull two notables:
1) ."..it has become clear that our NC leadership feels there is no longer a need for the Science Panel as indicated by the following actions, which counters almost two decades of the Science Panel’s efforts." Riggs goes on to list several policy decisions.
- Policy decision do not generally counter scientific efforts. Perhaps, some argument could be made to restricting scientific activity in areas which the public has moral concerns. Providing the Scientific Panel was engaged in a purely technical study of the coasts, as Riggs' describes, new policy or policy termination does not run counter to those technical efforts. The only way policy decisions can run counter to the Panel's efforts was if the panel had long been engaged in policy advocacy and encouraging policy decisions that limited growth. In this sense, then, yes current policy decisions run counter to the panel's efforts to advance policies limiting growth.
2) "From the science perspective, these political actions are totally unacceptable and threaten the future viability of NC’s coastal economy and jeopardize the coastal resources: they compromise the local villages and their citizens."
- The italicized portion of Riggs' statement is moral in nature and therefore does not follow from the bold part. Scientific facts do not have inherent value. It is the social and economic context that give facts meaning for our daily lives. Thus, Riggs' is using his own opinion about what is and is not acceptable,that is, what ought to be, in place of a statement about scientific knowledge. That's a slippery slope and threatens the democratic process as it is an appeal to place the scientists in the role as decision maker using the facts they deem relevant and the moral values they personally prioritize.
If the panel sees an undoing of policies they worked hard to achieve, then what becomes apparent is that the panel was doing more than just providing information. They also provided policy preferences (not just options) and over the past 20 years, has enjoyed a rather powerful role in establishing coastal policy particularly in regards to development.
Many may prefer limiting development and it is well within their democratic right to express those preferences. But the technical panel, responsible for and characterized as providing information and offering options, should not go about pushing an agenda. Getting miffed that no one heeds their advice is a sure sign of policy advocacy rather than providing information upon request.
The Science Panel (and others) are particular angered by the way policymakers have regarded sea level rise (SLR) predictions. They have restricted the window into the future by which the Science Panel is allowed to look (requesting 30 years hence rather than the Science Panel's preferred 100 years). The SLR estimates are important because they feed into erosion rate calculations and then ultimately, decisions about where people can build on the beach.
The obsession with the SLR estimates by many is a scientization of the politics. Both 30yrs, 100yrs, and other time frames are scientifically valid and in the end, not really what the debate is about. The debate is about what people want for the North Carolina shoreline and how they want their community to develop.
The knee jerk reaction of arguing about the science actually serves to preserve the status quo because the public is distracted by a technological debates that has many scientifically valid answers.
Clearly, a bunch of scientists (and others? you wouldn't know by the way the debate is framed) don’t want NC to build as they are currently doing. That’s not a scientific position, it’s a moral one. If taken out of the realm of scientific discourse and placed within the realm of citizen concern, the moral position becomes a relevant political fact for policymakers accountable to the public as they are not accountable to the policy preferences of a science panel.