2005 Salt Lake City Annual Meeting (October 16–19, 2005)

Paper No. 1
Presentation Time: 1:40 PM


LAYZER, Judith A., Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Room 9-328, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139, jlayzer@mit.edu

Advocates on all sides of environmental policy debates repeatedly cite the importance of ensuring that policy is based on “sound science.” But regulatory science is not a neutral source of objective information; nor does it free policymakers of the need to make controversial value judgments. Instead it serves as the basis for stories that underpin the definitions of environmental problems. The way a problem is defined is of central importance in politics: it determines whether a problem is perceived as a public concern; it shapes people's conceptions of their interests and thereby impedes or enhances the formation of alliances; and it limits the range and type of solution perceived as legitimate. In the fragmented, adversarial U.S. political system advocates compete to furnish the authoritative definitions of environmental problems. Historically environmentalists have succeeded in promoting protective policies when science has furnished both the elements of a persuasive causal story and the backing of an authoritative scientific consensus. But opponents of protective policies have succeeded in undermining the scientific basis for precautionary stories and promoting alternative stories that focus attention on the economic risks of protective policies. As a consequence, even a strong scientific consensus that an environmental problem is genuine and serious can have little political impact, as illustrated by the case of climate change. For scientists, these political developments raise questions about how to participate effectively in and contribute useful information to environmental policy debates.