Archive for July, 2007

Chris Mooney in Boulder/Denver

July 23rd, 2007

Posted by: admin

For you localites Chris Mooney will be in Boulder (NCAR) and Denver (Tattered Cover) tomorrow to talk about his new book Storm World. Get his schedule here and check him out.

Where is public confidence in science?

July 17th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Coming in a little late to this one, but on 30-June the WSJ ran an op-ed by Roy Grinker of George Washington University on the vaccines-autism circus. The article is moneywalled, of course, so you’ll need special access to see it, but a couple of snippets should give a good idea of his arguments.

I base my opinion on scientific literature and no court decision is going to change it. Neither will a court decision change the minds of the antivaccine advocates. Two distinct communities have emerged, and though they both employ the language of science, their ideas are simply incommensurable. The two groups co-exist, like creationism and evolutionary biology, but they operate on such different premises that a true dialogue is nearly impossible.

The real problem here, as we have pointed out a few thousand times, is Dan Sarewitz’s excess of objectivity. There is enough ammunition for both sides to keep firing.

We should not expect too much out of this trial, or the next eight. The scientific community and antivaccine parent groups will each continue to look for clues under their own lampposts, because that is where the light is. But we should pay careful attention to this conflict. The antivaccine movement may be evidence that public confidence in science is eroding, which means that public health is at risk too.

Grinker may be right here, but I think something else is important that he misses. The vaccines debate is not and has never been about the science, and it will continue to not be about the science. It is about whether it is reasonable for the government to mandate (whether it does so explicitly or implicitly) that all children receive vaccines. This is a social liberty and public health policy question, not a science question. The antivaccine movement has been forced to debate in the world of science when they want to be debating in the world of social policy. But science as a machine is a hard thing to stand up to, and the antivaccine movement must have sensed that they would get more traction making arguments about bad science than about social liberty. Clearly the argument “I don’t want the government to force my kid to get a shot” is a lot less compelling than “the government is poisoning our kids and covering it up with bad science.”

To go from RAGS to legislation

July 4th, 2007

Posted by: admin

[David Bruggeman is a frequent contributor so we finally gave him an author tag. Click on his name to see all his posts. -eds]

One of the less publicized legislative efforts this year is the second attempt to pass parts of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), introduced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. Many of the pieces of the ACI were recommended in the widely cited National Academies Report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. The parts of ACI that attracted the most attention of science and technology community were the goals of doubling the budgets for NSF, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the research accounts of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Those increases were part of the President’s FY 2007 Budget Request, but failed due to the inability of Congress to pass most of the budget for that year. The FY 2008 request shows the Administration still committed to doubling those budgets over 10 years. But the Executive Branch cannot implement the full ACI without legislative action.

Efforts to enact other parts of the ACI have not been as forthcoming. Three bills introduced in 2006 (two in the House, one in the Senate) to strenghten and expand federal programs to encourage more students to major in Science, Technoogy, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, as well as expand early career awards for researchers, withered on the legislative vine (although the House legislation did make it out of committee). Very similar legislation was introduced again this year, and as the Democrats have made some noise about an innovation agenda, there has been some progress. Currently both the House and Senate have passed legislation which awaits a conference to hammer out the differences. Both bills can be examined in detail through the THOMAS website maintained by the Library of Congress.