Summer 2012

Interview: A Scientist’s Generous—and Timely—Legacy | Summer 2012

Interview

A Scientist’s Generous—and Timely—Legacy

Lewis Branscomb (left) is honored by UCS Board Chair James McCarthy for his help in launching the new Center for Science and Democracy. Photo: Glenn Kulbako

During his long and distinguished career, physicist Lewis M. Branscomb was appointed by President Nixon to head what is now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, held positions in the Johnson, Carter, and Reagan administrations, and was chief scientist at IBM Corporation from 1972 to 1986.

Dr. Branscomb recently honored UCS with a $1 million gift to help launch our new Center for Science and Democracy. He spoke with Press Secretary Aaron Huertas and Director of Major Gifts Jennifer Norris to explain his motivation.

Why should we care about the role science plays in our democracy?

If you go back to the writing of the Constitution, the founders were informed by the values of the Enlightenment. They saw a parallel between scientific principles and a democratic government, in terms of using evidence-based conclusions, experiments, and transparency to promote trust and ensure our elected officials do the right thing.

What is preventing our elected leaders from living up to those principles?

Good policy largely relies on fact-based analysis. But in this era of hyper-partisanship and the over-influence of money in politics, too often science and facts aren’t just lost in the debate, they’re deliberately corrupted or excluded. And the Supreme Court has made the money-in-politics problem worse. Congresspeople are voting based on the interests of the groups financing their reelection bids. Politicians aren’t doing their jobs if they’re ignoring the facts.

When you look back over your career, what has changed over time?

The political system has gotten much less responsive to scientific evidence over the past 35 years. It used to be two-thirds of Congress always voted with their own party and a third were willing to cross party lines on specific issues. But every year it’s become more partisan. Twenty years ago, through the Office of Technology Assessment, scientists like me spent a lot of time talking to Congress. They don’t do that anymore. [Ed. note: The OTA was eliminated in 1995, leaving Congress without its own science advisors.]

What prompted you to make such a large gift to the Center for Science and Democracy?

My daughter asked me what our family could do to honor my career after I’m gone. And I thought, why not do it now, while I’m alive? I wanted to help start something I could be proud of, that would tackle these issues. I didn’t want to contribute to something that would be purely theoretical or academic, but I did want the organization to be heavily rooted in science. So I asked myself, who is practical and academic and really cares about science? The Union of Concerned Scientists.

What are your hopes for this work going forward?

I am particularly interested in the three-way dialogue between scientists, the public, and policy makers. By and large, people trust scientists more than most anybody else. And it’s the public who can push politicians to act more rationally, because politicians ultimately do answer to the public and care about what their constituents think. We need to encourage scientists to engage the public more, find out what the public cares about, and start a conversation about how we can use science to better our democracy and society. That’s what’s truly attractive to me. I see the Center for Science and Democracy playing a critical role in advancing that important conversation.