Archive for May, 2005

Science and Policy Guidelines in the UK

May 17th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The U.K. Office of Science and Technology has recently issued a “consultation (PDF)” requesting guidance on an update to its guidelines on the interface of science and policy. Specifically, “The Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making is a high-level document addressing the way in which Government departments obtain and use analysis and advice in policy-making.” It seems to me the that community of scholars who study science and decision making might have some useful input to this consultation.

The draft update observes, “The environment in which Ministers must make decisions is continually changing. In recent years we have seen the level of public interest in evidence based issues increase, and in some cases the level of public confidence in the government’s ability to make sound decisions based on that evidence has decreased. It is therefore essential that an effective advisory process exists which allows decision-makers access to a high-quality and wide-ranging evidence base. This will enable them to make informed decisions, to deal effectively with crises and to ensure that all opportunities are explored to their full potential. In short, we must ensure that:
• key decision makers can be confident that evidence is robust and stands up to challenges of credibility, reliability and objectivity
• key decision makers can be confident that the advice derived from the analysis of the evidence also stands up to these challenges
• the public are aware, and are in turn confident, that such steps are being taken

The principles laid out within these guidelines are consistent with the current better policy making guidelines to which policy makers adhere. They aim to further highlight the importance of the role of evidence in policy making, and to increase the awareness of policy makers on how best to seek good quality evidence from the most credible sources at the most appropriate time.”

Here are the specific questions that input is being requested on.


Letter in Science

May 13th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I’ve got a letter in Science this week on Oreskes/consensus. Naomi has a response. I’ve reproduced both in full below:

Consensus About Climate Change?

In her essay “The scientific consensus on climate change” (3 Dec. 2004, p. 1686), N. Oreskes asserts that the consensus reflected in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) appears to reflect, well, a consensus. Although Oreskes found unanimity in the 928 articles with key words “global climate change,” we should not be surprised if a broader review were to find conclusions at odds with the IPCC consensus, as “consensus” does not mean uniformity of perspective. In the discussion motivated by Oreskes’ Essay, I have seen one claim made that there are more than 11,000 articles on “climate change” in the ISI database and suggestions that about 10% somehow contradict the IPCC consensus position.


Wake-up Calls

May 12th, 2005

Posted by: admin

There was an interesting wake up call in the Letters section of Science this week.

It was along a familiar theme: federal science funding is being axed in an alarming way, and the United States risks a slew of (undefined in this short letter) future maladies if we forget that strong support for basic science and tech research is a key ingredient in our economic health. It’s a point that was also made in the masthead editorial by Lazowska and Patterson.

The difference between the featured editorial and the short letter is that the author of the latter is Bart Gordon, the ranking member of the Committee on Science in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Gordon repeats a familiar (of late) theme: “[misguided budget priorities] puts our nation’s strong global standing in science and technology at risk now and in the future.” But he is doing so from an unfamiliar podium to most readers of Science, a podium perhaps much more relevant than that from which most scientists usually hear the same message.

The fact that this letter was even written signals to me a new urgency in Congress over science funding. This is a member of Congress practically begging the community of federally-funded researchers to speak up, to slough off their hesitation and embarrassment, and to place a call to their elected representatives. It is a member of Congress saying, “Hey, despite what you’ve heard about how things work around here, individuals calling on their representatives actually does have a large impact.” In other words, this is an ironic role reversal: an elected representative lobbying the U.S. science and tech community to lobby other members of Congress on federal funding priorities.

The science and technology community hears this message from time to time, but how often do they hear it from a member of Congress directly? That should be both a neat insight into how Congress works and how people can influence the system, and a strong wake-up call. According to one of the best-placed members in science policy and politics, the science and tech community has a large role to play in shaping federal research priorities but is abrogating that role.

Any researcher in the U.S. should meditate on Rep. Gordon’s closing words:

“Researchers, students, faculty, this affects you. Write, call, e-mail, and speak on the importance of what you do for this nation’s economy. Help us help you by being your own unrelenting advocates.”

It is easy to dismiss this message as self-serving when from another science-based commentator, but when the message comes directly from the horse’s mouth (conflicts of interest in protecting committee turf aside), it is something all federally-funded researchers should take note of.

Water Vapor and Technology Assessment

May 11th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A study just out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) provides some reinforcement for the idea of a technology assessment of the environmental effects of fuel cell cars.

Last year a few of us (myself, Bobbie Klein, Genevieve Maricle, Tom Chase) here at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research wrote a letter (PDF) to Science suggesting that water vapor emissions from fuel cell vehicles ought to be considered from the standpoint of a technology assessment, because water vapor can have effects upon the environment. We speculated:


Immigration and Climate Change

May 9th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The New York Times today has an op-ed on climate change and immigration by Sujatha Byravan, president of the Council for Responsible Genetics, and Sudhir Chella Rajan, head of the Global Politics and Institutions Program at the Tellus Institute. The op-ed revisits an argument made by the authors recently in Nature.

Byravan and Rajan argue that one of the consequences of human-caused climate change “will be rising seas, which in turn will generate a surge of “climate exiles” who have been flooded out of their homes in poor countries. How should those of us in rich countries deal with this wave of immigrants? The fairest solution: allowing the phased immigration of people living in vulnerable regions according to a formula that is tied to the host country’s cumulative contributions to global warming.”

This op-ed is worth commenting on because it actually talks about policy, and does not take us into the cul-de-sac of “global warming: yes or no?”. So let’s discuss their recommended policy option. To summarize my critique, Byravan and Rajan take a complicated issue of great importance, displaced peoples, and argue as if a human-caused climate change aspect of this issue can be considered in isolation of that larger problem. This, in a nutshell, represents the core pathology of current discussion of climate policies.


New Publication

May 6th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Bobbie Klein and I have a new paper out. The paper suggests that the impacts of hurricanes/tropical storms is somewhat greater than conventionally accounted for, when inland flooding is considered in addition to coastal damages.

Here is the abstract:

“Abstract: A problem exists in that the classifications used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for weather-related disasters do not always allow analysts to clearly link declared disasters to their ultimate meteorological cause. This research focuses on those disasters related to flooding resulting from tropical cyclones. Neither FEMA nor the states that request federal disaster aid distinguish flood disasters by their meteorological origin, making it difficult to assess the contributions of various meteorological phenomena to the incidence and severity of Presidential Disaster Declarations. The data presented in this initial analysis indicate that the flood-related impacts of tropical systems are considerably broader and undoubtedly larger in economic magnitude than documented in the official records kept by FEMA.”

The whole paper is here.

Another Recipe for Politicization of Science

May 5th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Nature reports this week that the U.S. National Science Foundation is moving toward limiting the number of proposals that a particular university can submit,

“In the past few years, the NSF has placed limits on the number of applications that a single institution can submit. Those limits will now become increasingly common, according to Arden Bement, the agency’s director. He says the measures are needed to control the number of proposals flooding in to his staff, and to boost the success rate of applications. He stresses that the new policy will affect only large facilities and collaborative grants. “This would not be for individual applications,” he says. But universities are starting to speak out about the proposals, warning that the changes are forcing them to become unwilling peer reviewers. Earlier this year, administrators at Princeton University, New Jersey, had to choose one of several proposals for a programme that funded international collaborations, according to Diane Jones, director of the university’s office of government affairs. The proposals came from several disciplines and departments, making the choice far from straightforward. “Universities are not set up to do this kind of internal peer review,” she says.”

In my experience universities are highly politicized places — and I don’t mean here the Republican-Democrat sort of politicization, but the sort of politicization associated with turf, disciplinary status, personal feuds, professorial fiefdoms and horse trading and logrolling. Going further down the path of outsourcing peer review to universities is in my view another step towards a continued diminishment of peer review as an effective tool of decision making about science.

Fun With Cherry Picking

May 4th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Two blog posts from recent days highlight the cherry picking of information to put a favorable spin on information.

Chris Mooney does a nice job showing differences between a press release on a recent paper by Hansen et al. issued by Columbia University and a version of the same press release issued by NASA. Mooney argues that the differences show that, “The tenor of these edits is all in one direction: Make the findings seem less alarming–i.e., less demanding of political action, and also less newsworthy.” Of course, the authors of the Columbia press release also had decisions to make about how to portray the Hansen paper.

At Climate Audit, a recent post makes the case that the IPCC selectively ignored inconvenient data when creating a graphed showing paleoclimate temperature reconstructions. Climate Audit then presents its recreation of the graph in question with the previously not-included data added and suggests that the IPCC did not include the data because it complicated its conclusions.

Both of these instances are great examples of the “cherry pick — the careful selection of information to buttress a particular predetermined perspective while ignoring other information that does not. In other words, take the best and leave the rest.” NASA is allegedly trying to present the Hansen paper in a way that puts the current Administration’s climate policies in the best light, and the IPCC is allegedly trying to present data that best support its conclusions. If we get a bit reflexive about this, in a similar manner, Chris Mooney is selectively focusing on data and anecdotes that make the Bush Administration look bad (e.g., he has not vetted every agency press release), and Climate Audit is focused on holding the paleo-climate science community accountable (and similarly has not audited every IPCC graph). Here at Prometheus we selectively focus on examples and cases at the messy interface of climate politics and science (and we tend to focus on problematic aspects of that interface). But of course we should not expect to receive information that is not selective; it would be of little use. Weblogs are useful because they are selective in their presentation of information.

All of this is to say – to quote Dan Sarewitz — all uses of facts and information are selective. Every single one. There is no alternative. Every time anyone makes an argument and invokes facts or information they have some agenda for doing so (except Michael Crichton, that is). That NASA or the IPCC (or Chris Mooney or Climate Audit or Prometheus) have agendas in not surprising. In neither case do Chris Mooney or Climate Audit allege (I think this is correct) that either NASA or the IPCC has engaged in scientific misconduct. What they are saying is that each organization has acted in ways to present information in a manner that further its own interest , perhaps revealing an underlying agenda, probably political.

Good for Chris Mooney and good for Climate Audit. Such close attention can help both the IPCC and NASA realize that people are paying attention to their use of information and facts. Knowing that people are paying attention will mean that NASA and IPCC may be less likely to go beyond cherry picking to providing information that is mistaken or mischaracterized. NASA and IPCC (and bloggers as well) should care because if people come to learn that their information providers are playing fast and loose with facts and information, then with some audiences their institutional legitimacy and authority may be placed at risk.

Anytime someone uses facts or information to make an argument, that use is selective. Cherry picking is inevitable. But it is important to recognize that how one uses information can either foster or damage legitimacy and authority (on this, see recent reports on use of intelligence leading to the war in Iraq).

What Kind of Politicization Do You Want?

May 3rd, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In Sunday’s Sacramento Bee Mark B. Brown and Ramshin, both of California State University, Sacramento, observe (free registration required) that while it is impossible to separate science and politics on the stem cell issue, we do have choices about how stem cell science is politicized. They write,

“The controversy over implementation of Proposition 71 is not about whether stem cell research will be politicized but how it will be politicized Prop. 71 was designed to counteract the politicization of science associated with federal science policy. The Bush administration had reportedly slanted the membership and distorted the recommendations of several of its scientific advisory boards. And the president’s 2001 restrictions on publicly funded stem cell research have been widely criticized for sacrificing science to ideology. Seeking to avoid such political meddling, Prop. 71 made the institute’s advisory committees largely exempt from conflict-of-interest and open meetings laws. It stipulated that the initiative’s provisions could not be changed by the Legislature for three years, and then only by a 70 percent vote in both houses. And Prop. 71 declared, “There is hereby established a right to conduct stem cell research.” Just as the Bill of Rights protects civil and religious freedoms, Prop. 71 sought to protect science from political interference. So far, none of these efforts to insulate science from politics has worked. But why would they?”

Brown and Ramshin make the case that the issue is not whether or not stem cell science politics will be politicized, it will no matter what. The issue is how it is politicized and Brown and Ramshin make the case that we have choices in this regard.

“Two lawsuits now challenge Prop. 71, and many former supporters have publicly attacked the secretiveness and cronyism at the institute. But even if it is impossible to get the politics out of stem cell research, there are ways to avoid the sort of politicization undertaken by the Bush administration. A constitutional amendment recently introduced by state Sens. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, and George Runner, R-Lancaster, and now in committee, offers one option. The amendment, which if passed by the Legislature would require approval by California voters, would make the bodies created by Prop. 71 subject to open meetings and public records laws, as well as conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure requirements. These are worthy goals. They would introduce a more accountable and transparent, and hence more democratic, form of politics into stem cell research.”

Read the whole article here to see Brown and Rashmin’s recommendations for how stem cell science might be politicized consistent with democratic common interests.

Leadership in Space

May 2nd, 2005

Posted by: admin

Technological and political leadership has been an important goal for NASA over the last fifty years. Particularly during the early days of space exploration, international competition between the Soviet and U.S. space programs spurred manned and unmanned missions, with each country achieving important milestones in space exploration. Now, the Bush Administration’s call on NASA to pursue novel and unique capabilities to send manned missions to the Moon and Mars reflects a dedication to space leadership as a tool of international politics.

NASA explicitly defends the inclusion of manned missions to the Moon and Mars in terms of leadership saying in a recent budget document, [PDF] “[Humans] will also serve as a potent symbol of American democracy, a reminder of what the human spirit can achieve in a free society.” The Administration’s rhetoric of exploration supports a view of space as ground for proving new capabilities and enhancing the perceived power of the U.S. at home and abroad.

The U.S. faces growing anti-Americanism in some parts of the world, and as the NASA quote above shows, some believe that manned exploration accomplishments can contribute to bolstering the image of the U.S. abroad. Much as Apollo purported to demonstrate U.S. military superiority over the U.S.S.R. in the cold war, some suggest a new lunar program would demonstrate the cultural superiority of the U.S.

But, will a manned mission to the Moon or Mars really convince rival nations to accept U.S. policy positions?