The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law

Manuscripts and Articles

Volume 2, October 2002

David Guston’s Between Politics and Science:
Assuring the Integrity and Productivity of Research*

Reviewed by Kimarie R. Stratos, J.D.**


* Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2000, 213 pages.

** Bioethics and Research Counsel, Miami Children’s Hospital, Miami, Florida.



Instead of a new world order, we have “a new world of inordinate disorder,” Norman Neureiter told an audience at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service less than a month after the events of September 11th. Referring to the topic on everyone’s mind since that tragic day—national security, Neureiter, the Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell, acknowledged that the role of science and technology underlies all elements of the security task.[1] Scientific advancements related to intelligence, biological, biochemical and technologic inventions used to ward against terrorist attack, bring science and technology to the forefront of homeland security, now a Department in its own right.[2] These topics, combined with notable pre-September 11th issues, including stem cell research, cloning, HIV/AIDS, global warming, gene patenting, genetic modification of food, nuclear waste clean-up and bioethics, have clearly placed science and the politics that necessarily accompany it, in the forefront of intellectual debate throughout the country. Politicians appear nightly on cable news shows debating the pros and cons of policy related to science, more often than not, in partisan alignment. What is not typically discussed in the public arena, however, is the framework within which two once unlikely bedfellows—science and politics—have, over the last century, become inexorably entwined in a complex relationship designed to serve the public good.

In his book, Between Politics and Science, David H. Guston takes on the formidable task of examining this relationship within the context of a detailed historical perspective, specifically focusing on the areas of mutual interest to both enterprises, the assurance of integrity and productivity. With the government’s current focus on enhancing technology in the wake of September 11th, Guston’s book provides a timely framework for review by academicians, researchers, politicians, policymakers and others seeking to advance their causes.

Guston is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers University and a widely published author in the field of science policy. His vast knowledge of public policy and its enmeshed philosophical component are clearly revealed in this book, which provides the reader with an overview of almost a century of political and scientific interaction. Guston’s book takes the reader on an historical journey, utilizing scientific controversies and philosophical models to demonstrate the plausibility of a “social contract for science.” It addresses the applicability of the principal-agent theory in examining the appropriate framework for the relationship between politics and science, and the changes brought about by research misconduct and economic disappointments surfacing in the 1980’s.

At the forefront, Guston distinguishes his subjects, by noting that science is engaged in the pursuit of truth, and politics, in the baser pursuit of interests. Though the two may appear as polar opposites, he explains that they actually function in close proximity. “…[T]he bright line between politics and science is a fine one,” states Guston, and it is on this line that science policy perches.[3] The book describes the players in vivid fashion—to the one side is the “rough and tumble, the horse trading and pork barreling, the colorful bustle of politics; to the other, the ivory-towered, rational contemplation and methodical pursuit of truth.”[4] Policy in science involves the direction of funds; science in policy involves the provision of expertise from science to politics. Thus, the basic framework is set: there is an ongoing struggle between the usual corruptive influences of politics and the potentially unaccountable self-governance of an authoritative professional community.[5] While exploring this struggle, Guston uses history, philosophy and objective data to examine the boundary between politics and science. His task is to determine where each begins and ends through an examination of issues important to both—the assurance of research integrity and productivity.

Historical Perspectives: A Century of Politics Regarding Science

While resolving any current problem, historical perspective often proves invaluable. Between Politics and Science provides ample historical information with respect to both the political events shaping science policy and the philosophical models developing around them. Recognizing the multi-disciplinary make-up of his readers, Guston provides relevant details of political history regarding science for the educated non-historian and historian alike. Starting with the Allison Commission in 1880 through World War II, where important debate ensued over the appropriate role of the government and science, to the 1980s era of research misconduct and the changes resulting therefrom, Guston provides an excellent factual basis from which to analyze policy development. He explains that an account of science policy must be preceded by an account of policy making and an account of science. With this in mind, Guston identifies the principal-agent theory as an important analytical tool for defining the relationship between science and policy. The principal-agent theory, as applied to science policy, suggests that the government (the principal) requests that an agent (science) perform certain tasks that the principal cannot directly perform.

A Case Study: The Allison Commission

The book’s treatment of the Allison Commission exemplifies the way the author utilizes history to analyze the underlying principles of science policy. Guston explains the Commission’s creation and function with an eye towards modern day application as follows: The Allison Commission was established by Congress in 1884 to examine the organization of federal research, which at that time included charting, mapping, and other geological and meteorological functions performed by different governmental and military agencies.[6] Ostensibly reviewing the question of overlapping jurisdiction, a congressional body for the first time received testimony from scientists and bureaucrats about the nature and quality of their research. Unsurprisingly, issues of territorialism and political self-interest surfaced.

Not unlike various agencies today, the Commission questioned the basis and appropriateness of certain administrative decisions impacting upon research. Thus, for the first time, the issue of integrity, inherent in the delegation of science from principal to agent, became an issue. Likewise, the matter of productivity surfaced as the Commission inquired into such things as the nature and number of publications by the agencies in an effort to quantify productivity. Scientists in turn accused Congress of ignorance and anti-scientific attitudes—accusations still common today, notes Guston.[7] He uses these historical facts in the framework of the principal-agent theory to capably guide the reader through an analysis of science policy. Without hesitation, however, Guston acknowledges that when applied to the government’s delegation of research to the scientific community, this theory is indeed abstract.[8]

The author continues by espousing the need for “boundary” work when acting within the principal-agent framework, emphasizing the contingent demarcation of science from non-science. Guston notes that in the 1880s, there was no “boundary organization,” an entity acting as intermediary between and answering to both science and Congress.[9] Then, when Congress had a question, members set at a dais and the scientists--the same ones who collected specimens and chartered territories--sat across from them and gave the answers. A century later this same methodology was used to investigate research misconduct, as Guston illustrates, and boundary organizations were born.

A Social Contract for Science

Following his Allison commission case study, Guston describes the development of the “social contract” for science, an ideology defining the problem of delegation in science from its institutionalization just after World War II to its termination in the 1980’s. Guston identifies a social contract as a ubiquitous, theoretical device used to explore principals of civil and political relations.[10] Citing the theories of Locke, Rousseau and Rawls, the author argues that this social contract for science is plausible, with science working to enhance the public good. He describes a climate where science is supported largely through grants and contracts to private institutions, leaving internal control, including the method and scope of research, to the institutions themselves. This relationship, he suggests, supports the concept of a social contract between the scientific community and the American people, as represented by Congress. As such, the contract promised widely diffused benefits to society in return for according intellectual autonomy and internal self-governance to the recipients of federal support.[11] As with the history of the Allison Commission, Guston threads his description of the social contract theory with comments by and recognition of noted philosophers, political scientists, sociologists and other scholars, like Vannevar Bush, author of Science: The Endless Frontier, which, as Guston puts it, “looms large in the Mythos of American Science Policy.”[12]

Changes and Challenges to the Social Contract: Assuring Integrity and Productivity in Research

After explaining the social contract and its variations, Guston goes on to discuss challenges to the theory. He contends that the social contract remained intact in the post World War II era despite questions about loyalties in federally sponsored research because the basic methodologies for dealing with integrity and productivity remained the same. From there, Guston describes an overhaul of science policy brought about in the 1980’s as allegations of misconduct began to mount. In 1981, then-Representative Al Gore and Senator Orin Hatch led a congressional investigation of scientific misconduct with respect to research supported by the National Cancer Institute. Additional investigations of misconduct in other arenas followed. The outcome was significant. No longer could the issue of research integrity be informally managed within the scientific community. Rather, Congress created early boundary organizations, specifically, the Office of Research Integrity within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Offices of the Inspector General within the National Science Foundation (NSF) to assist in assuring research integrity.

Guston explains how these entities function to serve both the “principals” in Congress and their “agents”, the scientific community. For example, the ORI defined policies and procedures under which grantee organizations continue to maintain primary responsibility for investigation of allegations, but with oversight by ORI. Acting as agent for the principal, ORI can act either subsequent to or preemptive of an institutional investigation, to assure the integrity of both the investigation and the scientific function underlying it. ORI also acts as agent for science by providing educational assistance on research ethics and validating institutional policies on research misconduct so that scientists may act to ensure that their research programs function within appropriate parameters in order to maintain federal funding.[13]

Boundary Organizations

Guston also examines changes to the social contract for science as defined by a demand for productivity on the part of the principal. Moving away from appropriation as the impetus to create results, Guston describes how the government recognized what the private sector had long known, that the traditional reward system providing compensation for achievement goes far in encouraging productivity. Legislation was passed to “incentivize”[14] researchers, in partnership with the government, to produce, and in the process, another boundary organization, the Office of Technology Transfer, was born.[15] This change in policy, explains Guston, coupled with an attendant promulgation of laws, use of contracts and development of supportive infrastructure encompassed by this boundary organization, has greatly facilitated the transfer of and remuneration for scientific discoveries among the public and private sectors.

With the advent of these third party mechanisms to encourage both integrity and productivity, Guston contends that the social contract was replaced with a policy model utilizing boundary organizations to assure the integrity and productivity of science. The word “incentivize” has entered the vernacular of the scientific arena with resounding speed, while the regulation, oversight and ethics of research has come to the forefront of both science and public policy. One need only look at the advances from the time about which Guston writes to the present—the de-coding of the Human Genome, the growth of the internet, the creation of genetic therapies, and other technological advances--to analyze the very definite impact changes in science policy have had on the productivity of science and its resulting effect on our lives. Indeed, in the months that followed September 11th, the importance of existing science and the need for further advances became painfully apparent as the country struggled in its efforts to detect and combat anthrax and other forms of bioterrorism, to provide and enhance security screening through more sophisticated detection devices and to utilize and upgrade defense technology.[16]

Guston presupposes some level of knowledge on the part of his readers with respect to the theories and philosophical views cited in his work. While the newcomer to science policy can sift through the chapters and, with some effort, deduce who defended which view and why, the task is not elementary. For this group, the book’s Abbreviation Index will likely prove helpful to decode the scientific and governmental world of acronyms that are liberally used throughout the text.[17] To the non-academician, Between Politics and Science’s description of the principal-agent theory and boundaries, coupled with an analysis of the social contract for science, does not make for light reading. To those already versed in the field, the commentary will no doubt be illuminating and analytically refreshing.

Science Policy: Today and Tomorrow

In the aftermath of September 11th, appropriations for research and development have climbed dramatically, particularly in the area of biological and technological research. President Bush’s fiscal year 2003 budget proposes an increase in NIH funding to $27.3 billion dollars, a number double that of the 1998 spending level.[18] The allocation for the Department of Energy is almost $21 billion.[19] Perhaps more telling than the numbers themselves is their supporting rhetoric. In the tug-of-war for funding, competing interests must now prove their worth. In that context, Guston’s present-day take on the importance of scientific productivity could not be more glaring. The United States Office of Management and Budget frames the question as a new one: “Going forward, let the question we debate be not just ‘What will the federal government spend?’ but also ‘What will the federal Government achieve?’.” In the text that follows its promulgated OMB budget report, science agencies proudly proclaim their productivity, in both qualitative and quantitative terms. Selected programs are assessed within the parameters of “effective” and “ineffective” and performance is rated “overall” and within subsets.[20]

The pomp and circumstance is also ever-present. Lest there be political confusion about exactly who or what is responsible for the creation of the Internet, the NSF proudly clarifies the issue. Per the NSF’s budget text, its backing of computer science research led to the creation of a graphic browser which precipitated the creation of the Web.[21] The Department of Energy, the NIH, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and others highlight their accomplishments as well. Henceforth it seems clear that any budgetary discussion will necessarily include an analysis of the government’s role in the development and funding of scientific research, including discussion of the boundary organizations that act as go-betweens at the interface of science and the government to keep the process stable. Politicians will continue to demand tangible evidence of research productivity and will require justification and proof of regulation in certain, often controversial, research fields and of interest to constituents (i.e. stem cell research or cloning).

Whether spurred by the computer or biotech revolutions, or by September 11th, science policy issues are no longer merely the interest of politicians and scientists. Why hasn’t a cure for anthrax been discovered? Where is the fail proof screening technology to detect bombs and other destructive materials aboard aircraft and in public places? Beyond the current need for research and development lies the need for the creation and refinement of the policies that govern them. What of confidentiality in an age where participation in human subjects research can include the banking of tissue and the associated concerns of possessing a person’s DNA? Should genes be patentable or is use of patent law in the area of biotech and genetics an ill-advised effort on the part of policy makers? How should we deal with the globalization of research in the information age? Formerly reserved to classrooms, think tanks and those directly impacted by the subject, science policy is now squarely on the minds of the public, albeit not necessarily in Guston’s terms or within his framework. No matter how much thought is given to the subject, the ultimate return on today’s investments in science will remain a present day mystery.[22] Yet it is clear that science today will lead us to unknown places; science policy and its associated infrastructure must be ready for the journey.

To the politician, researcher or policymaker who may be adept at either politics or science but new to the nuances of the interplay between the two, Between Politics and Science will provide excellent insight into the background of current science policy. It also provides the building blocks to go beyond budgets and election platforms in analyzing the development and maintenance of sound science policy through its infrastructure, including boundary organizations. Guston draws no finite conclusions about whether the current structure of the relationship between science and politics will ultimately succeed in acting for the public good. He notes that even if all policies are followed and infrastructure is utilized, there remains a residual uncertainty about whether the research at issue will prove to be valuable to either or both parties. That uncertainty, says Guston, may allow one party to take advantage of the other, and from time to time, to sway boundary organizations. Guston appears to see this as an inherent characteristic in the relationship and suggests that the organizations simply need to be moored firmly down to weather the storms. One can only hope that Guston is right, for there will be storms to come.


[1] FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News, Number 131: October 23, 2001. Neureiter identified this task as having three elements: intelligence, diplomacy and military preparedness.

[2] National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell acknowledged the importance of science and technology in combating terrorism, stating: “(e)very discussion about airline safety, contaminated by disease, failure of communication links, poisoning of food and drinking water, assessment of damaged infrastructure and countless other concerns depends on our scientific and technical knowledge.” Colwell, in a November 7, 2001 speech to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars entitled “Science: before and After September 11.” The full text of this speech can be found at

[3] Guston, Preface, p. xv.

[4] Guston, Preface, p. xv.

[5] Guston, Preface, p. xv.

[6] The budget then for federal research was about $3 million in annual appropriations.

[7] “It is a shame,” quotes Guston of one scientist “that a Congressman whose brain is not more than two kitten power can kick (the Coast survey) around like a foot ball (sic).” (quoting Guston 1994a: 30). Among others, Major John Wesley Powell appeared before the Commission espousing what he believed to be the primary analytical fact of science policy: scientists know things about the conduct of research that politicians do not—an argument used as an apology for and acceptance of a laissez faire policy for science. Powell advanced the “pure-science ideal,” stating that “(s)cientific men are, as a class, the most radical democrats in society” who become “restive and rebellious when their judgments are coerced by superior authority”. Guston, p. 33-34.

[8] “The public is like a very rich man,” quotes Guston of E.E. Schattschneider (1960: 139), “who is unable to supervise closely all of his enterprise. His problem is to learn how to compel his agents to define his options.” Guston, p. 19.

[9] More specifically, Guston states that a “…boundary organization is more specifically identified because it provides space that legitimates the creation and use of boundary objects and standardized packages; involves the participation of principals and agents, as well as specialized mediators; and exists on the frontier of two relatively distinct social worlds with definite lines of accountability to each.” Guston, p. 109.

[10] Guston, p. 40-42.

[11] Guston, p. 45, quoting Harvey Brooks, (1990b: 12).

[12] Guston, p. 52.

[13] Guston, p. 88-112.

[14] While not a new concept in principal-agent theory, the idea of “incentivizing,” by providing economic benefits or sharing of potential profits in research was indeed novel. By the 1980s, creation of public-private partnerships to share in both risk and reward, including lucrative patent rights, became a reality.

[15] Legislation included the Technology Innovation Act of 1980, the Patent and Trademark Amendments Act of 1980, the Small Business Innovation Development Act and others. See Guston, p. 113-126.

[16] “It is abundantly clear that there is a concurrent need for increased scientific and engineering knowledge. In times such as these, we are acutely cognizant of living in a society defined by and dependent on science and technology.” Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation, infra, footnote 2.

[17] As Guston travels deeper within the confines of the “NSF,” the “NIH” and other science organizations to discuss the substantive groups and methodologies within, acronyms abound. In discussing the ORI and OTT in comparison to the OIG or the issues of productivity and integrity within the context of the functions of the APA, ILO, OSI, RIAB, DAB, PHS and HHS, among others, the Abbreviations Index will be appreciated.

[18] Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States, Fiscal Year 2003. The government’s budget is published at

[19] ­Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Said Ken Olsen—founder and chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation—in 1977: “(t)here is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home.” (Dr. Neal Lane, Director of NSF, “Science: Stepchild or Superstar,” delivered at the AAAS Annual Meeting on Engaging Science, Sustaining Society, February 14, 1997, at


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