Scientists and Environmental Policy: A Canadian-US Perspective

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For this research project, both natural scientists (33 each from the United States and Canada) and social scientists (32 from the United States and 31 from Canada) were interviewed by the author from March through November, 1997.(f.28) The natural-social science dichotomy was used because previous research has suggested that differences exist between how natural scientists and social scientists perceive the science-policy linkage.(f.29) For instance, in their work at The Udall Center at the University of Arizona, Helen Ingram et al. point out that in dealing with the formation of environmental policy, natural scientists often portray themselves as outside the political process and as poorly understood by politicians, while social scientists believe that natural scientists wield a great deal more influence than they admit to having.(f.30) Other scholars have noted differences in training and expertise between natural and social scientists(f.31) and have argued that a gap "often divides the social sciences and humanities from the physical and biological sciences"(f.32) such that social scientists are not accorded the same status as natural scientists.(f.33)

It is important to note that United States natural scientists do not share the majority view that science has had a large influence on our present-day environmental policies. In fact, there is a statistically significant difference between United States natural and United States social scientists and also between United States natural scientists and Canadian natural scientists, with a much smaller percentage of United States natural scientists (48.5%; as opposed to U.S. social scientists = 68.8%, Canadian natural scientists = 63.6%, and Canadian social scientists = 58.1%) perceiving that science is having a large impact on present-day environmental policies. Along these lines, United States natural scientists were much more apt to describe the development of environmental policy in terms of the science being overcome by politics and special interests, During the interviews, five times as many United States natural scientists as United States social scientists, Canadian natural scientists, or Canadian social scientists referred to the influence of politics over science. One United States natural scientist felt that when you were looking at the science-policy linkage and thinking in terms of equity and fairness, then:

The purpose of this study is to enhance what we know about the articulation of science with respect to the policy making process leading to the establishment of the Canada-United States Air Quality Accord. In particular, the focus is on how United States and Canadian scientists (both natural and social) viewed several key aspects of the transborder air pollution policy debate, including the influence of science (and scientists) in resolving that debate. Previous research, as noted earlier in this essay, has documented both the importance of science to environmental policy making and the pivotal role that scientists play in formulating such policies. However, studies have also highlighted the chilling effect that politics can sometimes have on the scientific community. Furthermore, scholars have previously documented marked differences between how natural scientists and social scientists and between how United States scientists and Canadian scientists approach the environmental policy making process. Along these lines, several findings from this study stand out.

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