The Politics of Science and Innovation Policies

The Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes hosted a workshop in Washington, DC in the spring of 2016 devoted to the political aspects of science and innovation policy. 


This workshop developed a research agenda for better understanding “The Politics of Science and Innovation Policies.” It was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (Award #1551814). The workshop, hosted by Walter Valdivia, non-resident fellow in the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, and Daniel Sarewitz, professor of science and society at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, brought together twenty-nine leading scholars and practitioners in the science of science and innovation policy (SciSIP). SciSIP is the study of public policies relating to science and technology, and their impacts on society. SciSIP is intended to give decision makers the tools and methods they need for creating, evaluating, and improving science policies that can achieve social goals.

Provided with four commissioned briefing papers in advance, the workshop participants convened at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, on March 17-18, 2016, to discuss research themes and questions about the interactions between politics and creating effective science and innovation policies (SIPs). SIPs are implemented in political settings, are often aimed at addressing issues that are defined politically, and are usually assessed in a political environment. Therefore, science policymakers must understand their policies’ political aspects. Unfortunately, this important area has not been systematically studied. To fill this gap, workshop participants discussed many ideas for a research agenda to guide scholarship in the political aspects of science and innovation policy.

At the workshop, participants suggested that the politics of SIPs can be analyzed productively from at least three perspectives. The institutional perspective would examine whether airing a variety of political views in SIP debates slows technological change, and if so, whether greater inclusion leads to policies that align with broad social values. Another useful perspective is that of interest groups. From universities looking to increase their federal grants, to local industries seeking a competitive edge in the global marketplace, to government contractors expecting continued patronage, how do local interests exert political influence on SIPs? A third perspective that would resonate with policymakers is that of the politics around hot-button issues. These include net neutrality, patent policy, scientific workforce and immigration issues, performance indicators, and budget issues.

One important theme that emerged from the workshop was that the political rationales for SIPs used by political actors (elected officials, appointees, advocates, lobbyists, etc.) are often not consistent with SciSIP scholarship. In particular, political actors often claim much more certainty about things (for example, the connections between investing in basic biomedical research and the achievement of better health outcomes) than our state of knowledge can support. This introduces a useful research question: What do political actors believe about the value and effectiveness of SIPs policies for achieving desired goals, and do those beliefs vary by political role, party affiliation, or ideological perspective?

Workshop participants identified several specific areas where political beliefs about the effectiveness of science and innovation policies were not in tune with the state of knowledge in the SciSIP community. This led to several specific versions of the general research question, along with recommendations for systematic investigation of the politics of SciSIP. These areas of focus included the government’s role in innovation; government research and development (R&D) investments and social outcomes; patents and innovation; R&D investments and economic growth; R&D policies and jobs; and state- and regional-level SIPs.

The outcomes of this workshop included building a community of scholars focused on improving our understanding of the interactions between politics and SIPs. Participants outlined areas for further study and research opportunities related to the politics of SIPs. The workshop offered insights into developing compelling research proposals and projects on questions related to the politics of SIPs. Finally, this project provided input to the National Science Foundation’s SciSIP program with a research agenda that can enhance its capacity for identifying, soliciting, and funding high-impact research on the politics of SIPs.

To read the full report submitted to the National Science Foundation, including the workshop agenda and biographies of the workshop participants, download the PDF here.