It is also important to say what the report is not about. It is not about the impact of science on society or about the payoff of investing in social science. These issues are being actively discussed in leading scientific institutions and in funding agencies, and we discuss this heightened interest in Chapter 2. Clearly, unused science cannot have any impact, but use does not equal impact. To assess impact and, beyond impact, return on investment, requires analysis beyond the scope of this committee’s charge. Our focus is restricted to use.


This report is addressed to scientists in general and to social scientists in particular. The use of science as evidence in policy making—irrespective of its disciplinary source—is a social phenomenon, and therefore a proper object of analysis for the social sciences. We present a research framework that can improve the scientific understanding of the use of science in public policy. Although some argue that the improved use of science will lead to improved policy choices, that is not our claim here. The question of what “improved” policy or “better” policy making entails and on what criteria such improvements might be judged is beyond our scope. What science does, with lesser to greater certainty and confidence, is describe conditions of interest to policy makers (or that might come to interest them when they are described), probe into natural and social conditions that may give rise to the need for policy action, predict what is likely to happen if action is taken (or not taken) to address those conditions, and, once an action is taken, explain what did happen and why.

Scientists—when they are practicing science—do not tell policy makers what should interest them or what policy choices they should make. Scientists deal with accurate description of conditions and with explanations about the causes or consequences of those conditions. Physicists and mathematicians at Los Alamos estimated the destructive consequences of the atom bomb. Social scientists in the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency) estimated the bomb’s effect on Japan’s civilian morale. Scientists could say, with varying degrees of certainty, that, if an atomic bomb is dropped, the consequences are likely to be this rather than that. There was no scientific basis on which to say whether to drop the bomb. That decision fell to President Harry S. Truman and his political and military advisers, who had to weigh factors in addition to those based in science.

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