Archive for April, 2005

John Gibbons at CU-Boulder

April 28th, 2005

Posted by: admin

For readers near Boulder, Dr. John Gibbons, science advisor to President Clinton, will give a talk tonight on campus. Dr. Gibbons is here as part of a series on Policy, Politics and Science in the White House. The talk starts at 7pm in Hale 270.


Bush Administration Goes Nuclear

April 28th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

From the Financial Times Wednesday:

“President George W. Bush will on Wednesday throw his support behind a worldwide expansion of nuclear power and announce plans for a new generation of oil refineries and natural gas terminals in the US… In addition to increasing capacity, Mr Bush believes nuclear power can also be part of the solution to climate change because it does not produce the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.”

From President Bush’s speech referred to by the FT,

“I’m looking forward to going to a G8 meeting in July in Great Britain. And there I’m going to work with developed nations, our friends and allies to help developing nations, countries like China and India to develop and deploy clean energy technology… With these technologies, with the expansion of nuclear power, we can relieve stress on the environment and reduce global demand for fossil fuels. That would be good for the world, and that would be good for American consumers, as well.”

Here is what we said a month ago (just in time!), “All of this looks to me like the Bush Administration is working towards some sort of major new initiative or announcement on nuclear power, all but certainly linked to the climate issue. Such an announcement would be responsive to Tony Blair’s calls for the U.S. to become more engaged in the climate issue, and would also raise some difficult issues for Bush’s historical opponents on the climate issue. The upcoming G8 meeting in Scotland in July would be a perfect opportunity to announce such an initiative.”

Now get ready for that debate.

Text of Bob Palmer’s Remarks

April 27th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Bob Palmer, recently retired after 13 years as Democratic Staff director for the House Science Committee, gave a talk here at Colorado last week. We now have online have an audio file of his talk and also his prepared remarks.

Here are a few teasers:

“…for many years, both in the executive and legislative branches, there has been no consistent or focused debate about the roles of S&T in meeting our broader national goals, as I believe there has been about the rightful place of other aspects of our culture… So regrettably, I’ve concluded that science policy is in anything but a golden age. It is rusty. It is stagnant. Engagement between the two branches and the two political parties is minimal. The great debates of the day are being held somewhere else. To the extent that they occur at all, science policy debates have gone underground. In short, it is an excruciatingly boring and unproductive time for the practice of science policy in the halls of government. Now I apologize to any students who came to this talk excited about their future careers in science policy. You could say that I’m just a bitter, retired-to-Florida, out-of-power Democrat and you could well be right. Let me try to explain why I’ve reached this rather grim conclusion.”

“Do I see any of this bipartisan, government-wide engagement now? The answer is virtually none, not even at the meso-scale level. Why? In my perhaps overly partisan view, the problem started in the late 1980’s, when S&T became politicized in Congress as part of a broader strategy by Republicans to seize back control of the Congress – a goal which they eventually accomplished in the 1994 mid-term elections. It may surprise some of you to hear that the public partisan fight over science policy – exemplified today in the reports by Congressman Henry Waxman and the Union of Concerned Scientists – did not start during this Administration. It has actually been going on in the Congress for about 15 years. There have always been a lot of specific fights on science-related issues on the Hill (for example, building the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in the early 1980’s). But partisan fights were largely non-existent until the late 1980’s when Newt Gingrich – ironically now an outspoken and highly entertaining advocate for science – stirred up his followers in the House of Representatives to fight the Democrats on everything, including science. I can go into specifics in the question-and-answer session if anyone is interested, but let me just say that beginning in the late-1980s, we fought on all sorts of issues and with a spirit of meanness, that had not been seen for decades.”

The whole talk is worth listening to or reading.


April 26th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a letter report (PDF) on the structure of the U.S. government’s Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). The New York Times characterized the report as follows, “The Bush administration’s program to study climate change lacks a major component required by law, according to Congressional investigators. The program fails to include periodic assessments of how rising temperatures may affect people and the environment.” The GAO concludes that due to the structure of the CCSP and its process for connecting science with decision makers, “it may be difficult for the Congress and others to use this information effectively as the basis for making decisions on climate policy.”

The GAO report was interpreted by the New York Times as a narrow criticism of the Bush Administration, but what is missing is the historical context. The CCSP, and its former incarnation as the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), have always deemphasized research on the impacts of climate change and on mitigation and adaptation responses. It is probably true that the Bush Administration is happy with a CCSP focused on questions of climate science absent an impacts or policy context, but this stance is possible because it overlaps with the long-time interests of the climate science community in avoiding these issues as well.

I’ll claim to know something about this subject because my PhD thesis (1994) was an evaluation of the USGCRP’s ability to contribute useful information to policy makers, and the dynamics reported on by the GAO go back to the late 1980s. Here is some background (references at the bottom):


How Science Becomes Politics

April 25th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The climate issue provides an incredibly rich and textured body of experience to explore issues of science and politics. All participants in the political debate over climate policy work hard to define the issue in terms of science. This by itself is of course not so surprising, as anyone who has seen the old television commercial claiming that “4 out of 5 dentists recommend Acme gum for their patients who chew gum” will be familiar with the appeal to scientific authority. What is most interesting to me in the case of the climate debate is the different roles that scientists might play in the political debate over climate, and how scientists have chosen to position themselves and their institutions on the climate issue.


Getting What’s Wished For

April 25th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Early last month a group of 750 scientists signed an open letter to the head of the National Institutes of Health protesting a shift in priorities toward biodefense research and away from some public health research. The letter, which was published in Science, stated, “The diversion of research funds from projects of high public-health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public-health importance represents a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiological research.” In other words, the letter suggests that societal needs should play some role in setting research priorities. To support the claim of relative relevance, an appendix to the letter provided a comparison of the number of cases and deaths associated with diseases.

In last week’s Nature a Columbia University researcher warns in a letter of the perils of appealing to societal criteria in justifying research priorities:

“I find it striking that those who protest against the funding of biodefence research are proposing instead that public-health menaces should be given the highest priority. By this standard, many of the letter’s signatories should voluntarily return their funding for research on Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli and other non pathogens so that it can be appropriately directed towards the obvious public-health threats of HIV and tuberculosis.”

He later states, “Using body counts (“Bioweapons agents cause, on average, zero deaths per year”) may be useful in the short term to frame the debate, but I fear they will be damaging in the long run. How many of us want to be asked, when our next grant is reviewed: “How many people did your bug kill last year?”. I certainly don’t. If basic research is relevant to the health of the nation, then make the case that it is so.”

Of course, the Columbia researcher is correct that if scientists start
invoking societal needs to justify research priorities, it won’t be long before someone interested in targeting science on societal needs raises the notion of the “90/10 gap” (i.e., 90% of global health research funding goes to support research that affects 10% of the global population), and proposes some really dramatic changes to research funding priorities. Bloodless arguments for basic research allow researchers to dodge making any explicit claims about the societal benefits or outcomes research. This of course makes it difficult for policy makers to make effective judgments about competing scientific priorities. It also makes it difficult to target science on areas of societal need.

Science, Politics and Deer

April 21st, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a nice article (free registration required) on the science and politics of deer management. The article observes,

“Science does underpin efforts to manage the deer population through hunting in every state. In practice, however, the science of deer management is no more immune to public pressure than is the science of stem-cell research. At one extreme are those who object to killing animals on moral grounds. At the other are what might be called libertarian hunters. They remember forests abundant with deer over much of the last half-century and blame overzealous government biologists for producing today’s comparative scarcity. For their part, a broad consensus of scientists believes that for everyone’s benefit, including the deer, hunters must adapt to a new role – as wildlife managers rather than just sportsmen – and game agencies must be willing to put up with the inevitable heat from constituents angry about their added civic responsibility.”

This is also a good example of the limits of “honest broker science.” In this case deer management depends critically on the work of wildlife ecologists, but such work cannot say what the single most appropriate course of action is – science alone cannot reduce the scope of choice. Consequently, any attempt of wildlife ecologists to “stick to the science” of deer population dynamics is bound to map onto one or another political agenda, and risk adversely politicizing science. One way out of this trap would be for wildlife ecologists to clearly link science with a wide range of alternative courses of action, ensuring that their views of the science are incorporated in any policy that is ultimately adopted.

Follow up on Food Pyramid

April 20th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Last week we discussed the U.S. government’s “food pyramid” as an example of the impossibilities of “honest broker science” in cases characterized by conflict over values and uncertainty in knowledge. Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its latest incarnation of its food pyramid.

Media coverage of the pyramid suggests a range of different perspectives on the relative success of the pyramid as a means to provide scientific advice to the public. The new pyramid is actually a number of different pyramids that can be tailored to an individual’s unique circumstances. This would seem to be a move in the direction of “honest brokering” of action alternatives. But not all observers see this as a good thing. Here are some examples of reactions from a Washington Post article:

“”The fact that almost all the information is on the Web is a lost opportunity, because only the very most motivated people will go to the Web and dig into this information more deeply,” said Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.”

“”It’s positive that what they released can be more personalized,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes greater consumption of fruit and vegetables. “And I like the way physical activity is included graphically. But from a negative side, the population most in need doesn’t have access to computers, and from a big point of view they missed the opportunity to make a stronger message. . . . It’s designed to not call any attention to any negative food group. I hate to say it, but what else would we expect from the USDA?””

The last comment reflects the view of some who see the pyramid as a reflection of industry influence. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University, took one look at the new pyramid and asked: “Where’s the food? There’s no ‘eat less’ message here,” Nestle said. “There’s nothing about soda or snacks or about how many times you should eat.”” And the Washington Post article included a similar perspective, “”The new dietary guidelines are the best ever,” said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “They’re based on the latest science and they provide very strong advice, but it seems like the USDA dodged the difficult political advice once again and didn’t clearly communicate what to eat less of. Given that obesity is the biggest health problem facing the country, that is what is most needed to be communicated.”” Clearly, there is no “honest brokering of science” on this issue, even though by all accounts that I have seen the scientific basis of the pyramid is first rate.

I am no expert on food policy, but I would hypothesize that the differences in view on the efficacy of the food pyramid lie in differences in opinion about the role of the expert in a democracy. In other words, some will see the role of the scientist/expert to empower decision makers to take responsibility for their own choices by providing them with a set of options. Other will see the role to be something more along the lines of telling people what action they should take (i.e., narrowing the scope of choice). And of course such perspectives also reflect equity considerations, such as who wins and who loses among the users of the new pyramid (e.g., this is reflected in various comments on whether the expert target the informed and motivated public or the uniformed or otherwise disadvantaged public?). I’d pose the hypothesis that one’s views on the pyramid’s flexible structure will be closely correlated with one’s views on the role of the scientist/expert as an honest broker or issue advocate.

Clearly the pyramid reflects a compromise of perspectives, and there is no such thing as a pure “honest broker.” But it does seem that the present incarnation of the food pyramid reflects a move more in the direction of honest brokering than the previous version. The most important yet unanswered question from my standpoint is: Is there any evidence that the new incarnation better supports decision making than the past version or possible alternatives? The ultimate test of honest brokering and issue advocacy is the pragmatic test.

[If any of our readers is aware of or conducting research on the last question posed above, drop us a note. Thanks!]

On Basic Research

April 19th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

On 10 April 2005 Rick Weiss had a commentary in the Washington Post lamenting the apparent decline of basic research. He writes, “the U.S. scientific enterprise is riddled with evidence that Americans have lost sight of the value of non-applied, curiosity-driven research — the open-ended sort of exploration that doesn’t know exactly where it’s going but so often leads to big payoffs.”

Daniel Greenberg suggests one way to view such claims, “You hear it repeatedly: The federal government is cutting financial support for scientific research, and America is losing its scientific supremacy. That ominous message, delivered to Congress by money-seeking scientists, is routinely and uncritically parroted by a gullible press. But it’s self-serving nonsense.”

Weiss’ article is chock full of contradictions. How does one reconcile “non-applied, curiosity-driven research” with the promise of “big payoffs”? The former suggests that applications should not be the metric of success, while the latter says they should. Weiss cites DOD’s DARPA as an example of the trend away from “basic research.” But as John Giacomoni, a student of mine, points out for our class, the development internet was always driven by considerations of applications and deliverables. DARPA does not have “basic research” as part of its congressionally-mandated mission, only NSF and NASA have such a mandate. In every other federal agency research is a means to an end, not the end itself, or at least this is view from the Hill.


More on Real Climate as Honest Broker

April 18th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In a paper of mine (PDF) last year on the role of scientists in the debate over Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, I observed “Some scientists in opposition to Lomborg lent their credibility and stature to interest groups who then used the scientists as the basis for making a political claim.” Clearly, the practice of issue advocates using scientists (and scientists offering their services) to further political ends takes place across the political spectrum. In what ways should scientists claiming to be honest brokers bear responsibility for the use of their name, stature and organizations in the political battle of issue advocates?

One reply is that it depends upon what role that scientists and their organizations want to play in the process, honest broker or issue advocate? Here at Prometheus we have commented on organizations (and their representatives) such as the IPCC, Presidents Council on Bioethcs and the Real Climate weblog who appear to conflate the roles of issue advocate and honest broker. Here I’d like to continue a critique of Real Climate by focusing on the role of one of its representatives in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine.

To be fair to Real Climate, I am focusing on them because (a) they are an important experiment at the interface of science and policy/public, their role invites STS-type analyses (b) we have an ongoing and I think unique conversation here on Prometheus with numerous Real Climate scientists on this subject and (c) Real Climate claims to be serving as an honest broker, in contrast to many other groups in the climate arena who clearly identify their role as issue advocates. We have at times taken a similar role in critiquing the IPCC. Also, it is worth repeating that our critique of Real Climate does not imply any affinity with those who critique Real Climate on the basis of the contrarian/mainstream science-cum-political debate on climate change. Our views on both this debate and the policies that we advocate on climate change are well established (e.g., see this PDF).