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Fall/Winter 2001 Vol. 1 No. 2

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National Academy of Engineering

Expert, Independent Advice Is Critical to Inform Science Policy, Perhaps Now More Than Ever

NAE President Wm. A. Wulf (photo by Valerie Chase) It's trite to note the impact of science, engineering, and technology on every aspect of our society -- but it's only trite because it is so true. It's also true that the pace of technological development and adoption is accelerating.

In this environment of increasing societal dependence on science and engineering, more and more public policy needs to be informed by the best advice possible, so the role of a trusted, authoritative, unbiased adviser played by the Academies is critical -- and particularly important given the horrific events of Sept. 11. Counter- terrorism efforts always have been strongly supported by science and technology, and the Academies stand ready to contribute in any way possible.

But this comes in addition to important work addressing many other challenges of modern society. Inevitably, some topics we examine are controversial; there are several examples of that in this issue of In Focus: arsenic in drinking water, the effectiveness and impact of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, and stem cells, to mention just three.

Not surprisingly, when we take on these tough issues, we sometimes get slammed by all sides hoping to promote their agendas. What typically happens, however, is that a different tone is struck once the study is finalized and the report released; people are finally able to examine the report on its own merits.

The reason for the Academies' reputation for authoritative, unbiased advice rests, in large measure, on the scrupulous process we use to develop it -- here are some of the major features of that process:

  • Advice is generated by a committee of unpaid experts chosen for just that purpose; they are among the "best there is" on the topic, their areas of expertise span those needed to address the issue, and they have been carefully vetted to ensure no conflicts of interest and a balance of biases.
  • Committees seek broad input from all interested parties. Their information-gathering meetings are open to the public and announced well in advance.
  • The resulting reports are based on fact, not opinion. Although the people on our committees are excellent, we're not seeking their own opinions -- just the facts with evidence-based judgments.
  • Reports are peer-reviewed by a group comparable in expertise to that of the committee and representing a broad spectrum of views -- including extreme views. We require every comment by a reviewer to be addressed by the committee and carefully monitor whether the responses are adequate.

No process is perfect, but this one has evolved over nearly 140 years -- and it works pretty well. We continue to fine-tune it, but it has stood the test of time, even for the important, controversial issues.

    WM. A. WULF
    National Academy of Engineering

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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences