Whether investigating or legislating, Democrats should give science a voice

When the 116th Congress convenes in January, House Democrats likely will hold extensive hearings on the actions of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE and others in his administration. There also will be hearings regarding policy concerns on health care, education and other topics. Although the president sets his own policy agenda on immigration, the environment and other issues, Democrats should also explore the validity of claims and assumptions underlying those policies — e.g., that illegal immigrants may be prone to crime and cause overall damage to our economy.

Indeed, suppose that Congress turned to science — yes, that same science that has been sent to the back quarters of late — to inform investigations and hearings to resolve controversies concerning these claims, assumptions and policies. Certainly individuals and constituencies have made up their minds on issues, with or without scientific input, but here there would be no prejudging; rather, Congress should let the science guide conclusions.

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At the same time, Democratic leaders should set a cooperative and civil tone, allowing Republicans and independents to have good input into House hearings. And hopefully, over time, more bipartisanship will emerge. Encouraging bipartisan openness and incorporating science into policymaking could improve overall congressional functioning and re-center the legislative process toward more collaborative, less-fractured stances.

The hope would be that the Trump administration policies or upcoming legislative policies would be more objectively constructed, based on evidence. Of course we do realize that on some questions a scientific consensus will not emerge. Admittedly, in high-partisanship environments, this may be pie-in-the-sky thinking, but let it be a goal for the near future and beyond.

To have a fair process for all in investigations, especially on controversial issues, differing analyses and evidence should be examined, but with no need to seek balance if the available evidence appears conclusive in one direction. To help in such determinations, Congress could rely on data and research from nonpartisan governmental, quasi-governmental, educational or other entities. Give real credibility and merit to the services of the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office. Reports, findings and recommendations should be distributed and publicized widely. Science thrives when translated and shared.

This whole process would be of value not only for guiding policy decisions and building bipartisanship; it also would be a way to revitalize the notion that science and scientists are valuable, as is the need to follow the facts, rather than uninformed opinion. This would lift science from less visible settings into the public domain, where broader population benefits await. And, policymakers would be more likely viewed as governing from a bipartisan, informed perspective.

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Thus, beyond the investigations that some Democratic House members have elucidated, there are major issues that might be explored about which the administration has spoken adamantly:

  • Undocumented immigrants: What is their impact on crime rates compared to legal U.S. citizens? Are they an economic burden, or do they add to the economy? Do they take jobs away from U.S. citizens? Are there benefit-cost analyses comparing different ways of securing borders, including building a wall?
  • Gun violence: What conclusions come from research relative to background checks, the impacts of automatic weapons and/or high-capacity magazines, the role of mental and behavioral health, and concealed-carry reciprocity?

  • Voter suppression and voter fraud: What does the science say? Is a get-tough-with-criminals approach the best to curb crime? Scientifically generated research that vigorously addresses a host of crime-related issues such as juvenile delinquency, substance use, gangs, over-incarceration, domestic terrorism, etc. would be helpful for future legislation.
  • And, of course, there is the issue of climate change: Does it exist and is it principally caused by humans? Is combating (possible) climate change a threat to our economic system, or a job creator? Is climate change a national security threat?

Beyond these more controversial issues, there are many other concerns for which science can be helpful in setting policy. Legislation dealing with prospective funding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture and Justice, and other federal agencies all will face hearings in 2019-20. We know from prevention science that a host of issues related to child development, public health, early childhood education, tobacco and substance use, youth violence, parenting and healthy family development, among others, have been substantially informed by scientific research.

Some of our country’s greatest public health accomplishments have been achieved by combining strong investments in scientific discovery, dissemination and acknowledgment of scientific contributions to federal policies — among them, but by no means limited to, research into tobacco use, disease and death rates; the effects of lead; automobile safety regulations; the value of pre- and perinatal medical care; cancer research and countless other medical advances; child nutrition; and effective treatments for cognitive diseases and decline in older Americans.

America has proven that with proper investments and collaborative leadership, we can overcome even the most daunting of challenges. Our hope is that, starting in 2019, the House — and the Senate, as well — will reinvigorate the incorporation of science across the board at the federal level and depoliticize it as an ideological tool.

Robin Jenkins is a research scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is a founding board member of the National Prevention Science Coalition.

Neil Wollman is a senior fellow at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and is the previous co-director of the National Prevention Science Coalition.