What if Scientists Put Power Over Policy?

Sci4NY | Science For New York
5 min readAug 22, 2023
Photo by Emma Angel on Unsplash

By Nancy Holt, PhD

In conversation with a colleague I asked, “How does anything get done in NYC?” He suggested I read The Power Broker, a biography the prolific, ruthless builder — Robert Moses. In fits and starts, I finally made it through the 600k+ word epic. Since so much has been written about this book already, I will attempt to convey my insights as a recovering scientist turned policy enthusiast in 1k words.

For a quick summary, The Power Broker covers how Robert Moses became a central figure (if not the central figure) in shaping New York (city and state) for forty-four years. He obtained a PhD in Political Science from Columbia University in 1914. In his first job, he attempted to apply his academic training to reform the NYC civil service through reason and evidence. He failed miserably in this effort, as his work put him in direct conflict with the Tammany Hall machine that ran NYC on the principles of graft and patronage.

Moses eventually figures out that amassing power is the only way to “Get Things Done.” At first, he uses it as a means to an end. As the story often goes, it becomes the end in and of itself. He masters gaining and holding on to it in ways that left him unchallenged by mayors, governors, and even presidents. Finally, he loses his last hold on power to someone more powerful than him.

During his reign, he influences almost every aspect of NY(C) as it is known today — including both the bad (and sometimes very bad), as well as the good. The racism that shaped both his personal outlook and his professional decisions are inseparable from his story. Not just his desire, but also his actual ability to complete large-scale projects are central to his legacy.

Here I ponder what scientists might learn from Robert Moses — particularly because I believe his tactics were rather different than the current approach to evidence-based policymaking. I’ll note that I am not advocating for or against his way of addressing challenges. Furthermore, these musings draw from my own experiences and read of The Power Broker, which are both largely NY(C)-centric.

These are my key inputs:

Center Your Approach Around Power: It is much easier to get things done by being the decision maker than to try to convince the policymakers to follow your recommendations. As a result, a more productive approach to science policy would be to focus on how to get scientists into positions of power, both in front of and behind the scenes. Being connected to, or at least aware of the power brokers, is important as well.

Know the Basics, but Don’t Rely on Them Too Much: You should know the structure of your municipality and state, who are the elected officials, when elections take place, etc. However, that likely won’t help you much in actually navigating the policy space. Also be aware that thinking of the federal level as a template for local and state efforts can be ineffective, as they can sometimes differ in nonobvious and surprising ways.

Understand the Actual Rules of Engagement: Try to decipher how decisions are really made, including both where the money comes from and who has an important/final say, i.e., the power brokers. Also, attempt to understand where they derive their power from and what might be the proverbial “chinks in their armor.” Trying to shift toward a scientist’s vision of how things should operate, or attempting to use tactics like diplomacy in a place like NYC, will probably be an exercise in futility.

Focus on Deliverables: Local- and state-level policymakers in particular depend on unveiling public works and other tangible, physical achievements to demonstrate success to their constituents. Moses was particularly adept at not just making such projects happen, but also letting key politicians take credit for them. When devising projects or collaborations, think about how policymakers could publicly tout them as achievements.

Learn the History and the Context: NY(C) politics has a long and lively past. Many current issues are simply reincarnations or continuations of old ones with new players. The arguments for/against them likely are as well. The information you can glean from these endeavors over time is often more interesting and valuable than what you can ascertain from scientific knowledge on its own.

Keep in Mind that Politics and Policy Are Sometimes One and the Same: What actually gets done is often some intersection of what serves decision makers, the real-world issues of the day, and funding availability. Trying to understanding them as a single entity can be more productive than trying to decouple and study them separately.

There’s Power in the Press: While the journalists ultimately didn’t end Moses’ hold on power, they were responsible for both sustaining and, ultimately, chipping away at his heroic public image. Building relationships with local reporters, who are often looking for story leads, can help convey and amplify a message in a way that scientists often don’t have access to on their own.

Take the Bird in the Hand: Achieving anything in (NY)C can be a very tricky endeavor. If you there’s an opportunity to make progress, even if very small and not exactly how you envisioned it, go forward. It likely won’t come around again.

To achieve his goals, Robert Moses went from PhD to Tammany — becoming the leader of the very system he initially attempted to dismantle. In that way, coupled with an immensely stubborn personality, he was able to “get things done” in unprecedented ways.

So what does it take to get things done now in NY(C) in a more inclusive and harmonious way? Honestly, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ll keep trying to figure it out.

Nancy Holt leads Science for New York (Sci4NY), which brings policymakers and scientists together to improve the well-being of NYC. On Twitter @Sci4NY. She holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and was an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) policy fellow at the U.S. Department of State.

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Sci4NY | Science For New York

Sci4NY is science policy organization that brings scientists and government policymakers together to enhance the wellbeing of New York City