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Science is believed to be an important part of public policy decision making because of its inherent characteristics of measurability, rigor, objectivity, replication, and peer review. The purpose of this research was to explore the linkage of science to public policy decision making. The research explores what state and local public offi cials know about science and how much they actually use science in their decision making. Interview results with public offi cials in the State of Idaho demonstrate that policy makers ultimately see science as only one element in the mix. Findings suggest that equal attention and debate should be given to how science interacts with all of the other factors that aff ect the public policy making process.

Science plays a profound and formidable role in American public policy making. Science increasingly has been called on to provide information to improve decision making in public affairs (Karl et al. 2012, vii; Van Beek and Isaacs 2008, 211). Science is designed to inform social policy; it serves as a language and reference point that allows for informed discourse about the nature and seriousness of societal risks (Schmandt 1984, 26). Whether it involves the current focus on energy independence, nuclear-waste disposal, or enduring questions about climate change, science mixes extensively with the everyday decisions of citizens and policy makers in our democratic society. Science is viewed as a process that is transparent, replicable, and objective—and even as a means to sort out the uncertainty or to gain more knowledge about a subject matter.

The call to science is especially pertinent at the state and local level of policy making. Governors must decide whether to advance the cause of nuclear power, wind power, or solar power. Mayors struggle with decisions to advocate for expanding public transportation or existing roadways. Agency heads are conflicted over allowing the burning of fields to promote crop production or restricting burning to protect human health. It is not only the large and widely publicized national and international problems such as climate change and energy independence that call for the intervention of science. Reliance on science also affects decision making at all levels of government.

This research explores the linkage of science to public policy making as viewed from the perspective of state and local public officials—policy makers who are in a position to use science in formulating and implementing public policy on a daily basis, attempting to solve some of America’s most enduring problems. If science truly plays a formidable role in American public policy making, then we should see its influence in the views of our state, regional, and local policy makers. Moreover, by systematically reviewing the thoughts and ideas of public officials who work at the state, regional, and local level of government, this article sheds light on the science–policy linkage as it plays out at our most basic level of governance. In summary, it explores what state, regional, and local public officials know about science and how much they actually use science in their decision making.

This article provides a definition of science as it is characterized in the United States today by both scholars and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). If we are to understand the linkage of science to policy at the state, regional, and local level of governance, we must begin with an understanding of the meaning of science and the process that defines the scientific method. First, the article provides an overview of science as it pertains to American public policymaking. Thereafter, it describes the use of science and delineates how uncertainty poses special problems for policy makers. Ultimately, it examines how much science is part of the mix in decision making for policy makers in a democratic society.

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This is an author-produced, peer reviewed version of this article. The final, definitive version of this document can be found online at PS: Political Science & Politics, published by Cambridge University Press. Copyright restrictions may apply. doi: 10.1017/S1049096515001183