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Vol. 42, No. 3, July 2013
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History and Public Policy: An Interview with San Diego Mayor Bob Filner—and Some Information on Science Policy

By Melinda Gormley (Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values, University of Notre Dame)

[Editor's Note, August 6, 2013: Since the interview with Bob Filner was posted in the July Newsletter, a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against him by several women.  Subsequently other women have come forward indicating that they too were subject to his inappropriate sexual overtures.  In a press conference on 26 July, Filner admitted the truth of these accusations, stating:  “The behavior I have engaged in over many years is wrong.  My failure to respect women and the intimidating contact I engage in at times is inexcusable.”  He indicated, moreover, that he intends to seek treatment at a behavior counseling clinic and undergo intensive therapy.

The History of Science Society deplores sexual harassment and is sensitive to the harm suffered by persons who experience it.  The interview traces Mr. Filner’s biographical path from history of science to politics, contextualized by a broader discussion of the connections between history of science and careers in science policy. We want to make clear that the Society in no way condones any inappropriate sexual behavior that he may have engaged in.]


San Diego's new Mayor Robert "Bob" Filner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1942. He graduated from Cornell with a B.A. in chemistry, and then completed his Master's Degree in History at the University of Delaware, where he wrote a thesis on the 19th century Russian chemist Alexander Mikhailovich Butlerov. He continued his interest in the history of science at Cornell, where he earned his Ph.D. under the guidance of L. Pearce Williams (Filner's 1973 dissertation titled "Science and Politics in England, 1930-1945: The Social Relations of Science Movement"). He taught mathematics at Tuskegee Institute and then spent over twenty years teaching history at San Diego State University before moving full time into politics. In 1979 he was elected to serve on the San Diego School Board and became School Board President in 1982. He then served on the San Diego City Council beginning in 1987 and was elected Deputy Mayor in 1991 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. His mayoral term started on February 22, 2013.

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Article: History and Public Policy: An Interview with San Diego Mayor Bob Filner—and Some Information on Science Policy
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An Interview with Mayor Filner

MG: How did you go from a Ph.D. in history of science to Mayor of San Diego?

BF: I came out to San Diego to teach at San Diego State University, which I did for 22 years. I taught history of science for all of those years.

My children were in the public school system and I ended up running for the school board to bring attention to the issues I thought I knew something about, the issues I thought should be responded to. I won the election, which I didn't expect since I was a Democrat and it was a Republican town in 1979. I had so much fun being in office and decided to run for City Council. I won twice there. With each new position I taught less. When I went to Congress I stopped teaching entirely.

So my position as Mayor came out of my love for education and my love for my children.

At Cornell University as an undergraduate I was studying engineering and became convinced I needed some liberal arts. I took a history of science course. At the time Henry Guerlac and Pierce Williams were there. They overwhelmed me with their ability. That's when I decided that's what I wanted to do.

During that time, I had always been involved and interested in politics. I have a history of activism; I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement from the mid-1950s. I was part of the Freedom Riders and was in jail for a couple of months, and I was also involved in the politics of the 1960s and 1970s.

It was an evolution from education to politics and from activism to politics.

MG: How does your training in the history of science help you in your current role as the Mayor of San Diego, or in your past positions as a Congressman or City Council member?

BF: A historical perspective is important for everyone. You've got to know where you've been to know where you are going. You must understand the history.

It gives me a leg up. When I vote on an issue, people see I know the history. Nowadays, all issues are science and technology based. How do you deal with an issue, like climate change or evolution or stem cells, when people deny it exists and people don't understand the science?

We are embarking on putting solar panels on school buildings and people recognize that I understand the science and are surprised that a politician has that background.

MG: How can historians, and especially historians of science, technology, and medicine, contribute?

BF: People in these fields could be of great help if they were to get more involved as advisors. Academics worry about losing integrity, but that doesn't have to be the case. The fact that you understand the science and technology takes you farther more generally. Historians of science are more able, but they are not the only ones who can do this. …

I translate discussions into something more pragmatic. I appropriate the science and put it in more friendly terms. Scientists forget that information has to get translated into a way that the public can understand. Historians of science can help with this.

I did postdoc research on the Office of Technology Assessment. I am one of the only ones in my party who can argue for why it was important and why it should be resurrected.

I think there is real role for people in the political process. You need people with both a humanistic and scientific background.

MG: What are your favorite books or publications in the history of science?

BF: The first book I read in Henry Guerlac's course was The Copernican Revolution by Thomas Kuhn and it floored me. The interactions between science and history were amazing to me.

Some Information by Melinda Gormley

Bob Filner's path from professor of history to Mayor of San Diego is a study in historical contingency. He did not set out to become a politician. He ended up there through a series of events that played out over several years. Also, he did not abruptly leave academia but rather transitioned slowly into a career in politics. Indeed, Mayor Filner spent many years teaching history at San Diego State University while also holding various political offices.

In these ways, Mayor Filner's career history is not unlike that of many individuals who are now in science policy careers. Most did not complete undergraduate or graduate degrees in science policy—largely because, until recently, there were few educational programs in science policy. Of note are the following programs which have a strong science and technology studies component to the curriculum. The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University offers a one-year professional master's degree in Science and Technology Policy. Graduate certificates can be completed at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and the University of Colorado, Boulder's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Michigan State University provides an undergraduate program through the Science, Technology, Environment, and Public Policy Specialization (STEPPS), which HSS member Mark Largent has directed since 2005.

Fellowships have been the traditional route for acquiring training in science policy for individuals who have earned a graduate degree in the sciences or engineering or the humanities. Science policy fellowships attract people seeking jobs in a range of sectors such as academia, governmental agencies, NGOs and elsewhere. The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship provides training in how to apply your research to science policy issues and how to communicate your work in effective ways. Fellows live for 1-2 years in the Washington D.C. area working with a federal agency such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency (the list could go on and on). For more information, go to There are many other science policy fellowship opportunities out there, but it's difficult to find a comprehensive and up-to-date list.

Some professional organizations have outlets that promote science policy as a part-time outreach or as an engagement endeavor. HSS now has a Joint Caucus of Socially Engaged Philosophers and Historians of Science (JCSEPHS), which according to its manifesto promotes "research, educational and public activities in history and philosophy of science that constructively engages matters of social welfare." See the April 2013 HSS Newsletter's Member News section (page 25 of print version) and this issue for more information. The recently-formed Consortium for the Study and Practice of Socially Relevant Philosophy of/in Science and Engineering (SRPoiSE) tackles similar matters. The Consortium's five founding institutions are the:

Public policy is an area in which the history and philosophy of science and science and technology studies do and can have a significant impact. The above organizations, educational programs, fellowship opportunities, and interest groups signal the professionalization of science policy.

As a historian it can be difficult to make your work relevant to current science policy discussions. Jeremi Suri of University of Texas, Austin has stated that the historian's role is not to tell decision makers what to do, but rather to educate the public so there is a fuller historical understanding of the political discussion at hand. Suri made this statement during a presentation on the historian as public intellectual given at the University of Notre Dame on April 24, 2013. For more information on Suri, see his website at Also, check out a collection of essays based on seminars at the University of Cambridge. Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon's perspective in "The Benefits of Hindsight: How History Can Contribute to Science Policy" will be of interest to historians from any country even though the United Kingdom is the basis for their examples and recommendations. Higgitt is the curator of science and technology at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and she blogs for the Guardian. Wilsdon is a professor of Science and Democracy at University of Sussex's SPRU—Science and Technology Policy Research. Sheila Jasanoff discusses the uses of Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the public policy process in "Watching the Watchers: Lessons for the Science of Science Advice" and she provides a history of Science and Technology Studies as an outgrowth of studies into controversies involving science and technology and with policy implications. Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes explore the topic and suggest resources in "History of Science and American Science Policy" (Isis 99.2, June 2008: 365-73).

What holds historians back from engaging in science policy? Mayor Filner remarked that academics fear losing integrity. Political discussions and policy advising today requires scholars to learn communication tactics that safeguard their credibility. Retaining one's integrity means recognizing the boundary between expert advice and policy advocacy and learning how to communicate research findings separately from personal opinions. Nicholas H. Steneck, a historian of science who transitioned into bioethics during the 1980s, offers a resource through his Code of Conduct for Advocacy in Science. He is Professor Emeritus of History and Director of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research Ethics Program at the University of Michigan. Although he targeted the Code to scientists, it is a useful resource for any scholar concerned about retaining scholarly integrity while engaging with policymakers and the public.


Melinda Gormley is Assistant Director for Research of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values at University of Notre Dame. She is a fellow with the To Think, To Write, To Publish program that trains scholars and journalists to use creative non-fiction to write about science policy issues. It is an NSF-funded project offered through Arizona State University's Consortium for Science and Policy Outcomes.

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