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Rosenberg: Politicians agree that they aren't scientists

An architectural light show entitled illUmiNations: Protecting Our

An architectural light show entitled illUmiNations: Protecting Our Planet, designed to inspire action on climate change, is projected on the side of United Nations headquarters Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. More than 120 world leaders convene Tuesday for a U.N. summit aimed at galvanizing political will for a new global climate treaty by the end of 2015. Photo Credit: AP

When an editorial board recently asked Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about climate change, he said he wasn't a scientist. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott, both Republicans, have said the same thing.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said he wasn't a scientist, too, when he faced questions about his administration editing documents about the risks of hydraulic fracturing. Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal, of the GOP, said he wasn't an evolutionary biologist when asked about teaching established science in schools.

Of course, very few politicians are actually scientists. And while having more scientists in elected office may seem like an appealing idea, it is really beside the point.

Scientists, including me, serve on committees that advise governments at all levels. We do the tedious work of digging into the data and weighing the evidence. We don't present our individual research, but try to convey to policymakers what scientists have collectively discovered about a given topic.

These advisory bodies are designed to be transparent about the data they use, reveal members' conflicts of interest, and solicit input and feedback from the broader public.

In other words, they are democratic institutions that we should trust to tell us about the scientific aspects of the issues that confront us.

Too often, however, politicians conflate scientific evidence about risks we face with a demand for specific policy proposals. As a result, politicians who oppose climate policy are hostile to climate science just as politicians who favor hydraulic fracturing try to prevent scientific agencies from even studying it.

But as marine science professor David Hastings told Scott, scientists are the "mapmakers" while politicians are the "navigators." The navigator must ultimately choose the ship's course, but to do so while ignoring - or arbitrarily redrawing - the map is a perilous business.

The distinction and the process should be familiar to any elected official. After all, politicians aren't engineers, but they approve infrastructure projects. They aren't accountants, but they create budgets. They aren't inventors, but they make patent laws.

As Congress has become more polarized, including around scientific issues, some local and state governments have been trying to close the gap between science and policymaking.

For instance, while Rubio and Scott might have a strained relationship with climate science, city and county officials in Florida have already banded together to plan for future sea level rise.

Similarly, Congress tied the Environmental Protection Agency's hands when it comes to monitoring air and water pollution from hydraulic fracturing. City council members have reached out to local scientists to help them make sense of the risks as they simultaneously weigh the benefits of economic development from new wells.

In Colorado, which formed a commission to study fracking, some advocates are calling for a year's worth of so-called "baseline testing" that would allow the state to assess pre- and post-fracking air and water quality. Such testing could provide trusted, publicly available scientific information that both pro- and anti-fracking groups should welcome.

Finally, public policy has an undeniable effect on our diets, including sugar overconsumption and poor childhood nutrition. But some politicians responsible for food policy ignore this research. Again, cities such as Los Angeles and states including Minnesota are moving ahead with "food charters" that bring together farmers, nutrition experts, parents, community organizations and government officials to foster stronger local food systems.

Scientists study the risks we face - whether it's from failing to vaccinate our children, prescription drugs, hydraulic fracturing, climate change, or exposure to toxic chemicals.

Politicians don't have to respond to every one of these risks, of course. They can and should disagree with each other about if and how to respond.

But saying, "I'm not a scientist" in the face of scientific evidence is a cheap cop-out. As a talking point, it should be quickly retired.

Andrew A. Rosenberg is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, a former convening lead author of the National Climate Assessment, and served as northeast regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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