Monday, March 09, 2009

A-Political Science?

NPR commentators this morning seem positively giddy about the news that today President Obama will sign an order overturning the Bush administration's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. They seemed particularly fond of the mantra that this administration would be guided by "science, not politics"--and that Obama's administration would further "separate" science and politics.

This, of course, is taken to be the "enlightened" position, in contrast to the neanderthal policies of the Bush administration which let science be controlled by political ideology. In other words, according to this line, science under Bush was governed and controlled by politics. Instead, we need to liberate science from such unscientific controls--we need to liberate science to be a-political. Indeed, it seems that Obama will suggest the inverse: that our politics and policy needs to be governed by science. The paragons of the Enlightenment couldn't have put it any better.

But methinks this Enlightenment could use a little further enlightenment. Perhaps Obama's address will be more nuanced than the NPR buzz about it, but to suggest the liberation of science from politics is a naive conceit. There is no a-political science. (I might suggest that David Axelrod add a couple of books to the Air Force One library: Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern and Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy). That's not to say, of course, that science can't be hijacked by ideology; clearly it can. But the alternative to ideological science is not pure, a-political science. The best we can hope for is an honest, attentive science driven by "good" politics--and the latter, of course, is the source of much debate. The NPR/Democratic ruse about a pure, a-political science indicates a naive politics at best.