Meyer’s Climate Science: Public Values, Usefulness, Knowledge and (real) Progress

Meyer, R. (2011). The Public Values Failures of Climate Science in the US. Minerva. Retrieved from

“The Public Values Failures of Climate Science in the US” suggests a refreshingly insightful perspective on the intersections between science, policy, and the implications – dangers, even – of current science policy practices/failures. Meyer’s resounding claim, which he iterates and reiterates throughout the article, is that not all advances in knowledge are inherently good, and that if/when knowledge = progress, a social problem with political and social facets (like climate change) is easily reduced to a science funding problem. As he explains throughout, this ultimately threatens the fulfillment of public values, subsequently delegitimizing the mission and vision of governmental policies intended to address citizens’ priorities.

Throughout his argument, he references the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP)  (defined below) explaining that the Program ought to (re-) focus its practices so that its actions actually speak to the connections between science values and public values. As it is currently structured, he explains, CCSP operates within a framework that adheres to the “knowledge as progress” ideology, which has consistently failed to efficiently address public values (identified/defined below). In an effort to emerge from this failure and to practice a science policy that effectively answers citizens’ priorities, more attention ought to be given to the organizational and institutional components of science funding.

Meyers analyzes how US policy pertaining to climate science – the Global Change Research Act/Climate Change Science Program – has failed to achieve its purported mission and vision: to research/produce information readily useable by policymakers. A basic definition of the GCRA/CCSP is articulated below:

  • Global Change Research Act (GCRA): “… the Global Change Research Act (GCRA), like most science policies, has a broader purpose—it constructs an aspirational link between science and some form of social progress (48)
  • Climate Change Science Program (CCSP): “The last two decades have seen considerable continuity in the general purpose of coordinating climate science among agencies, even if the language used to express that purpose and the means of achieving it have evolved. So far, under the Obama Administration, the US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP, as it was known under the Bush Administration) remains largely intact, except that it has reverted to its pre-Bush-Administration name of ‘‘Global Change Research Program.’’ For the sake of consistency, I will use CCSP as a reference to the federal interagency program in general” (50)

Meyer opens by asking, “What is the broad social purpose of US climate science?” The short answer: the social purpose is largely ignored, in the sense that the “knowledge is progress” ideology prevails; that science values assumptions trump an ideology of knowledge that could lead to progress toward public values.  At its core, the GCRA merely stipulates that funding for research ought to ‘‘produce information readily usable by policymakers.’’  He explains how science values (i.e. “knowledge as progress”) are inadequate for achieving broader public values; the problem is the lack of consistent/traceable progress in synthesizing research results or supporting decision making and risk management.

The trajectory of Meyer’s article can be broken-down into the following purposes: use of public value mapping as a means of investigating the link between climate science and the broader social purpose of climate science policies to explain how/why GCRA has failed to produce policy-ready science (Meyers 48); identification of key public values; assessment of those values with decision making and management (a public values failure assessment); identification of assumptions about the connections between knowledge advancement and social problems like climate change; and insight and recommendations about climate science and science policy in general.

Public Values

  • What public values does Meyer identify?
    • First, he cites Bozeman (2007, p. 13) who defines the public values of a society as: those providing a normative consensus about (a) the rights, benefits, and prerogatives to which citizens should (and should not) be entitled; (b) the obligations of citizens to society, the state and one another; and (c) the principles on which governments and policies should be based.

Meyer cites five public values (which he develops from “… interviews, meeting observations, and document analysis…” from which he examines the decision processes and institutional structures that lead to the implementation of climate science policy, and [from which he identifies] a variety of public values failures accommodated by this system” (47).

Meyer’s Public Values


1. Useful information; usefulness

  1. More information doesn’t necessarily equal better decision making/increased information use
  2. Programs (like GCRA) that aim at immediately useful knowledge must take reality into account and involve potential knowledge users throughout their research
  3. CCSP Strategic plan: three categories of decisions that program will inform: political decisions, adaptive management decisions, and decisions related to the evolution of scientific research agenda … BUT the program doesn’t specify a PLAN for delivering useful information to these groups

2. High quality science; political tool

  1. In many instances, a reference to the maintenance of high quality science does not just mean ensuring rigorous research; it implies a commitment to what has come before.

3. Coordination and collaboration; transdisciplinary opportunities

  1. Possibilities within (“new”) disciplines like Earth Systems Science, which integrates human and natural systems in order to generate comprehensive understandings of global processes

4. Transparency and communication; openness and problematics of ambiguity

  1. Ambiguity in CCSP’s role in advancing federal climate science à ambiguity subverts attempts to monitor via budgets changes in priorities in US climate science

5. Stakeholder participation and support; stakeholders

  1. “stakeholder” à one of the most important buzzwords in interagency climate science
  2. “involving stakeholders in the processes associated with research and research policies requires managing, incentivizing, and carrying out research in different ways … if the mission is to empower decision makers, then decision making agencies … should definitely be at the table” (Meyers 57-59)
  3. Foundational problem: all goals are concerned with expanding knowledge, and not with developing the capacity to apply it
  4. CCSP hasn’t offered a clear account of what kinds of science advance would help to satisfy the public values that motivate the program to begin with 

Emphasizing Uncertainty …

Meyer’s perspective on uncertainty is particularly interesting, in part because of the ideology of science as the management of uncertainty, but more specifically because of the rhetoric of climate change, in which (just to cite one example of the many frames that exist) uncertainty can be “exploited … in an effort to create a state of confusion …” (Meadows, Meadows, and Randers 116). Such confusion ultimately leads to even more political opposition, as in the interpretation of climate change in terms of a rhetoric of crisis versus a rhetoric of democracy. Such interpretations – framings – jeopardize the ways in which policy can speak to public values … (*more on the rhetoric of crisis and the rhetoric of democracy coming soon …  the foundation of my recent article re: a case study of Resilient Tampa Bay, in which resiliency is framed in terms of a rhetoric of crisis and a rhetoric of democracy …)

  • Meyer explains that many have pointed out that most decisions do not (indeed, they cannot) rely upon the eradication of uncertainty (Pielke 1995); that scientific uncertainty can be a political tool used to win additional funds for science, or to delay a decision indefinitely (Shackley and Wynne 1996); and that a great deal of our uncertainty about the behavior of the climate and related systems is irreducible (Dessai and Hulme 2004). Reduction of uncertainty offers neither a sensible metric by which to judge progress in climate science, nor a reasonable surrogate for the goal of generating useful information (NRC 2005).


Meyer’s Recommendations


  • We ought to reconsider how to relate public values with the Program (CCSP); that we reconsider program structure (i.e. a structure that better facilitates agency of CCSP, for instance)
  • High quality science and useful information relate represent compatible values; BUT the flexibility and ambiguity of the relationship leads to public values failures
    • Meyer’s suggestion: language and institutional processes that promote high quality science and that contribute useful information
    • The CCSP should pursue public values by setting goals for science policy rather than goals for science
      • As it stands, public values serve the Program as political cover versus as a basis for guiding politics and practice
      • CCSP and its successors need to reject science values assumptions and ask what kinds of knowledge would lead to desired progress toward public values, and they can potentially do so by making value chains more explicit and by distinguishing between goals that support science and goals that connect science to public values
  • Concerning climate science in particular, Meyers recommends that decision makers ought to identify the concrete areas of climate science in which it can make progress toward its own public values-based goals  … this would mean thinking small
  • CCSP may take on the role of a boundary organization, specializing in communication between normally disparate political and disciplinary worlds … with the goal of strengthening connections between science programs and regulatory/service programs …” (Meyers 68)
    • This implies incremental progress in addressing public values

About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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