- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

“How can you tell whether a whale is a mammal or a fish?” a teacher asks her third-grade class.

“Take a vote?” pipes up one of the pupils.

This idea might be amusing coming from a child, but it’s a lot less funny when applied by governments to the formulation of complex policies that involve science and technology. And it’s an approach increasingly common around the world.

Britons had their say during the summer, for example, on whether they want biotechnology-derived (or gene-spliced) products in their fields and their food. To gauge public opinion in advance of a decision scheduled for later this year on whether to allow commercial planting of gene-spliced crops, at great expense the British government and local authorities sponsored a series of public discussions around the country.

The head of the British debates’ organizing committee, Professor Malcolm Grant, called them a “unique experiment to find out what ordinary people really think once they’ve heard all the arguments.”

Mark Henderson, science correspondent for the Times, offered this view of the U.K.’s 500,000-pound initiative: “The exercise has been farce from start to finish. I’m not sure I want the man in the street to set Britain’s science, technology and agriculture policy. One of the six meetings … spent much of its time discussing whether the SARS virus might come from [gene-spliced] cotton in China. It’s more likely to have come from outer space.” Mr. Henderson observed that the meetings were dominated by anti-technology zealots, the only faction organized and concerned enough about the issue to attend.

The urge to make policy based on public opinion about such issues flourishes this side of the Atlantic as well. The National Science Foundation, whose primary mission is to support laboratory research across many disciplines, is funding a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which average, previously uninformed Americans come together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.

At a time when federal budgets are under pressure and laboratory research funding is tight, the National Science Foundation has seen fit to spend almost half a million taxpayer dollars on this politically correct but dubious project.

Getting policy recommendations on complex technical questions like the safety of biotechnology and nanotechnology from groups of citizen nonexperts (recruited by newspaper ads) is sort of like going from your cardiologist’s office to a diner, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take medication.

The first of these foundation-funded groups tackled regulatory policy toward agricultural biotechnology and recommended the government tighten regulations for growing gene-spliced crops, including a new requirement that the foods from these crops be labeled to identify them for consumers. They got it wrong: Their proposals are unwarranted, inappropriate and contrary to the recommendations of experts, including those within the government and in the scientific community.

Science is not democratic. The citizenry do not get to vote on whether a whale is a mammal or a fish or on the temperature at which water boils. Legislatures cannot repeal laws of nature.

We should be wary of attempts to sample public opinion as a prelude to setting public policy on highly technical subjects. The goal of policy formulation should be to get the right answers — in this case, that gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of less precise genetic techniques that have been around for at least a half-century; that gene-spliced plants can make critical contributions to farmers, consumers and the health of the natural environment; and that, except as science dictates in specific cases, the products of gene-spliced organisms should be regulated no differently than other, similar agricultural and food products.

The formulation of public policy toward science and technology can be difficult, to be sure, but if democracy is to take public opinion appropriately into account, good government must discount ignorance and prejudice. The 18th century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke emphasized the government’s responsibility to make such determinations. He observed that in republics, “Your representative owes you, not only his industry but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a former official of the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

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