Political Science and Public Administration
Political Science and Public Administration
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Dr. Robert O. Schneider is a professor of public administration at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He’s a recognized expert in emergency management and climate policy, and has authored two published books: Emergency Management and Sustainability: Defining a Profession and Managing the Climate Crisis: Assessing Our Risks, Options, and Prospects. In this interview, I discussed with him his upcoming third book: When Science and Politics Collide: The Public Interest at Risk, which comes out in March 2018.

The book represents more than 5 years of work, and builds heavily on Dr. Schneider’s previous research and publications. In setting out, he initially sought to answer one main question: why is there a disconnect between science and policy? In his words, he wanted to know “why is there a reluctance on the part of some people to accept what the science is telling us?” in relation to climate change. He says that while “our perceptions of science… have become very political” recently, the relationship has never been ideal, and climate change is hardly the first point of conflict between science and politics – it’s just the most obvious one today.

Ideally, Dr. Schneider says, science would guide policy decisions. Politicians would look at existing research and the conclusions reached, and then use the evidence to inform future laws and resolutions. In reality, however, policy decisions are made long before the decision-makers ever take so much as a glance at the scientific research. Once the decisions are made, existing research is then applied (or ignored) selectively to support whatever conclusion the politicians want. Dr. Schneider argues that this is because “politicians are most interested in winning the argument they need to win today,” the “minutiae of the moment,” rather than the answers to the “profound questions” that scientists are concerned with.

When evaluating how science and politics interact, Dr. Schneider emphasized that there are four different dynamics (cooperation, conflict, resistance, and crisis) at play. The dysfunctionality of the relationship between science and politics is observable in each of the four.

Cooperation is present only when those in power need something from scientists. The example highlighted by Dr. Schneider is the case of the Cold War and national security in the United States. The “space race” was an example of collaboration between politicians and scientists, and an example of the scientific advancement and achievement which can take place when interests are aligned. Of course, those situations rarely last for very long, and once the politicians had achieved their goals, interest in – and consequently, funding for – the space program was severely reduced. In the end, even when cooperation is present, it’s obvious that scientists and politicians have very different end goals.

The second (and most common) form of interaction between science and politics is conflict. This occurs when what the science indicates isn’t what politicians want to hear; this conflict is ultimately “driven by [the] material interests” of the politicians and their supporters, Dr. Schneider says. A good example from history is the “controversy” surrounding the dangers of smoking. Long after scientists knew with certainty that smoking was a serious health hazard, politicians – who were heavily supported by the tobacco industry – still argued that the science was “flawed” or “unsettled”, or that scientists were lying to the public. As we know, politicians eventually acknowledged the science. It took much debate and considerable time, but eventually everyone came to understand the hazards of smoking. We can see almost an exact parallel with how climate change is presented today: even though there is near-unanimous agreement among scientists that climate change is real and human-caused, politicians – who are today heavily supported by coal and petroleum industries, among other heavy polluters – argue that the science is not settled, or use disingenuous and fallacious arguments to “disprove” climate change, such as bringing a snowball onto the senate floor. Dr. Schneider argues that time is of the essence in this case, and the continued denial of the science may push us past the point of crisis with regards to the climate.

The third form of interaction is more to do with public opinion than with political interests: resistance. Dr. Schneider says that this is present when the science contradicts people’s personal beliefs. As opposed to the conflict model, which is a result of competing interests, resistance is more of an emotional reaction to science; it occurs when the consensus disagrees with a person’s fundamental personal beliefs. The clearest examples of this are when evidence conflicts with religious beliefs – for instance, in the case of anti-evolutionists or young-Earth creationists – but it can extend to philosophical objections and anecdotes from unauthoritative sources as well; for example, the relatively recent opposition to vaccines despite the complete lack of scientific evidence that they’re anything but beneficial.

The final form of interaction comes when a crisis occurs. At this point, the power structure is temporarily turned on its head: politicians become dependent on scientists and plead for their assistance and expert opinions in resolving an adverse event. Even this can be seen as highly dysfunctional; politicians are more than willing to ignore repeated warnings from scientists about potential disasters, but once one actually occurs, public opinion and sympathies shift enough to where those in power have to be seen trying to manage the situation. This could be seen as a short-term example of the “cooperation” dynamic, but it is a reactive dynamic when it really needs to be an anticipatory one. The horse is out of the barn before the cooperation begins.

Dr. Schneider’s conclusion is that these situations are all unacceptable, and a more consistent, cooperative dialogue needs to be established between scientists and politicians to ensure true progress. His book highlights both steps that may be taken to resolve the communication problems as well as the dire consequences we may face if science continues to be politicized. We’re on the clock, and time is quickly running out. “A day later,” he concludes, “may be a day too late.”

-By Jacob Newton