Archive for March, 2005

Intelligence and Science for Policy

March 31st, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

From the cover letter to the Silberman-Robb WMD report (PDF) released today is this paragraph:

“The Intelligence Community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policymakers-sometimes to the point of discomfort. Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don’t know; the collection agencies must be pressed to explain why they don’t have better information on key topics. While policymakers must be prepared to credit intelligence that doesn’t fit their preferences, no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true. This is not “politicization”; it is a necessary part of the intelligence process. And in the end, it is the key to getting the best from an Intelligence Community that, at its best, knows how to do astonishing things.”

Seems to me that if we substitute “science” for “intelligence” in this paragraph it holds up equally well.

A Misuse of Science?

March 31st, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. reported yesterday that “A House Government Reform subcommittee next Tuesday will examine whether alleged falsified government research documents compromised scientific justification for storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev.” The investigation was motivated by the DOE announcing on 16 March possible irregularities in the data or models used to study Yucca Mountain.

At issue is the fidelity (or perceptions thereof) of the science used to justify the decision to select Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. The Daytona New-Journal editorializes,

“Mistrust has since accompanied any government claim that Yucca is the safe repository the government claims it to be. Mistrust intensified this month when Energy Department e-mails came to light showing that the department was falsifying scientific records at the mountain. Instruments designed to measure electrical, gaseous and liquid conditions inside the mountain were being certified as ready for use before the department even had them in hand, while a United States Geological Survey employee admitted to falsifying other work. The employee claimed he was not the only one doing so. The falsified documents were part of an application process leading up to the licensing of Yucca Mountain’s readiness for receiving waste. The licensing is designed to certify that the science used to judge Yucca Mountain safe for receiving waste is reliable. But if the licensing process itself is a lie, what is there to trust about the government’s science on Yucca Mountain?”

The alleged falsification of documents occurred 1998-2000 when the administration of Bill Clinton was pushing toward a decision on Yucca Mountain. President Clinton wrote in a 2000 letter to Congress,


Science versus Society

March 30th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Every spring the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosts a forum on science and technology policy. This year’s forum is April 21-22 in Washington, DC. The March 28 version of the agenda is online. The forum’s closing plenary session is titled, “SCIENCE VERSUS SOCIETY? WHEN SCIENTIFIC INTERESTS AND PUBLIC ATTITUDES COLLIDE” and is focused on evolution versus creationism, stem cell research and federal funding of research on sexual behavior.

The framing of this particular session is very interesting for several reasons. First, it suggests that science is not only separate from “society” but is somehow in opposition to society. On the evolution versus creationism the speaker is from the National Center on Science Education, and thus will presumably discuss efforts to include creationism or “intelligent design” in public school curriculums. While there is public support for such inclusion, there is also public opposition (see this nice review of polling results by Ohio State’s Matt Nisbet). There is a political debate going on in particular states and schools about education, and while it is entirely appropriate for scientists to take sides in such debates, to suggest that these debates are about science vs. society is just incorrect, not to mention poor public relations for scientists. The debate is about one part of society versus another, or in other words “politics.”


30th Annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy

March 29th, 2005

Posted by: admin

April 21-22, 2005
Loew’s L’Enfant Plaza Hotel
Washington, DC

You are cordially invited to attend the 30th Annual AAAS Forum (formerly Colloquium) on Science and Technology Policy, scheduled for April 21-22, 2005. This meeting, held in Washington each spring, provides a setting for discussion and debate about budget and other policy issues facing the S&T community. Since its beginning in 1976, it has grown into an annual institution that draws approximately 500 top science and technology experts. The Forum is the major public meeting in the U.S. on science and technology policy issues.

This year’s program will include sessions on:
- The Budgetary and Policy Context for R&D in FY 2006
- The Future of Scientific Communication (Formerly Known as Publishing)
- Young Scientists, Graduate Education, and National Needs for the S&T Workforce
- Science and Global Health Disasters
- The Role of R&D in the U.S. and Global Economies
- Science Versus Society? When Scientific Interests and Public Attitudes Collide

In addition, the meeting will feature:
- Keynote address by John H. Marburger, III, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
- Invited addresses by eminent public figures at the optional luncheons on Thursday & Friday, and the breakfast on Friday
- The annual William D. Carey Lecture, given this year by Representative Rush D. Holt (NJ)

For an up-to-date agenda, fees, online registration materials, and hotel arrangements, please go to


The Coming Debate over Nuclear Power

March 28th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here is some background reading on this subject:

From the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, an article by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills titled, “Why the U.S. Needs More Nuclear Power” arguing for more nuclear power. Here is an excerpt:

“Many Greens think that they have a good grip on the likely trajectory of the planet’s climate over the next 100 years…But serious Greens must face reality. Short of some convulsion that drastically shrinks the economy, demand for electricity will go on rising. Total U.S. electricity consumption will increase another 20 to 30 percent, at least, over the next ten years. Neither Democrats nor Republicans, moreover, will let the grid go cold—not even if that means burning yet another 400 million more tons of coal. Not even if that means melting the ice caps and putting much of Bangladesh under water. No governor or president wants to be the next Gray Davis, recalled from office when the lights go out.

The power has to come from somewhere. Sun and wind will never come close to supplying it. Earnest though they are, the people who argue otherwise are the folks who brought us 400 million extra tons of coal a year. The one practical technology that could decisively shift U.S. carbon emissions in the near term would displace coal with uranium, since uranium burns emission-free. It’s time even for Greens to embrace the atom.

It must surely be clear by now, too, that the political costs of depending so heavily on oil from the Middle East are just too great. We need to find a way to stop funneling $25 billion a year (or so) of our energy dollars into churning cauldrons of hate and violence. By sharply curtailing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, we would greatly expand the range of feasible political and military options in dealing with the countries that breed the terrorists.

The best thing we can do to decrease the Middle East’s hold on us is to turn off the spigot ourselves. For economic, ecological, and geopolitical reasons, U.S. policymakers ought to promote electrification on the demand side, and nuclear fuel on the supply side, wherever they reasonably can.”

Read the whole essay here.

From CSPO’s policy perspective series an article by G. Pascal Zachary titled “Nuclear Resurgence, Part I” that discusses some possible obstacles and promises a second part on potential downsides. Here is an excerpt:


Tragedy, Comedy and Axiology

March 28th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In today’ Chronicle of Higher Education Thomas H. Benton (a pseudonym) relates (subscription required) his comedic/tragic experiences dealing with the consequences of Weinberg’s axiology of science.

“I was meditating in the men’s room down the hall from my office, and it occurred to me that humanities departments often have the worst buildings and facilities on campus. Is your toilet paper a gigantic roll in a locked plastic case (to prevent you from stealing it)? Does the roller have a spindle so stiff that only one sheet of single-ply paper can be removed at a time (to thwart your wastefulness)? Do you use stringy soap that leaves long strands of bubble-gum scented goop between the dispenser and the sink? Do you have spring-loaded faucets that shut themselves off instantly, so that one hand must hold the water on while the other hand half-rinses itself? Do you dry your hands with an abrasive brown paper that seems to be made out of pulverized Egyptian mummies?

The building where I work as an English professor went up about 60 years ago as a state-of-the-art science center. Our small, liberal-arts college has built two new state-of-the-art science centers since then. One was completed just last year after a record-breaking capital campaign, and it is quite luxurious. The restrooms in that new science center have beautiful marble countertops. The chrome faucets do not shut themselves off against your will, and the soap dispensers put a precise dollop of something like shaving cream in your palm with the touch of a button. Even the toilet stalls are wider. It’s like the difference between first class and coach. I half expect a washroom attendant to offer me a fresh towel and to brush the lint off my jacket.”

He concludes with suggestion of a few possible new career tracks for humanists:


Tyranny of the Plebiscite

March 25th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

From AP Wednesday, “The National Weather Service (news – web sites) will stick with the familiar “skinny black line” on maps projecting the paths of hurricanes, despite concerns that the practice fails to convey the uncertainty in forecasting and can give the public a false sense of security. Scott Kiser, the tropical cyclone program manager with the weather service, made the announcement Wednesday before the opening of the annual National Hurricane Conference. The agency had looked at three options: keeping the skinny line, using a series of large colored dots to represent the projected path, or using large circles that would encompass the projected path and the margin for error. Kiser said the decision to stick with the line was made after the weather service sought opinions from the public, the news media and emergency service workers, receiving 971 e-mailed responses. He said 63 percent favored keeping the skinny line. He summed up the response as: “Show us your best forecast — we’re smart enough to figure it out.””

From a 1999 paper of mine looking at the role of NWS forecasts in the flood disaster in the Red River of the North, “Because the NWS issued its river stage predictions in terms of a single number, local decision makers did not have the information necessary to evaluate the risk they faced under alternative courses of action. Effectively, this put the NWS in a position it should not find itself — of implicitly deciding what level of risk a local community should face (i.e., in this case a river stage of 49 feet). This can lead to misjudged risk assessment, overconfidence in forecasts, and ultimately poor decisions about how to fight the flood. A more appropriate process would have provided local decision makers and the public with probabilities of different levels of inundation, and coupled with other relevant information, the community and particular individuals could have decided how they ought to respond. Some local decision makers in the region want this responsibility, but others do not. Many of the decision makers interviewed expressed the following sentiment: “We don’t want changes, just give us an accurate forecast that the NWS will stand behind.” The local resistance to change is understandable: the effect of providing probabilistic information would result in a shift in responsibility (and accountability) for decision making on the question of “what river height do we prepare for?” from the NWS to the local decision makers. For many local decision makers this added responsibility is not desired. But more generally, few would argue that such decisions belong at the local level and should not be made by the NWS.”

Sometimes, science and technology decisions ought not to be made simply through surveys of the public or decision makers. The NWS has learned this lesson but apparently has not taken it to heart.

Politics and Disaster Declarations

March 24th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported on Wednesday that, “As the second hurricane in less than a month bore down on Florida last fall, a federal consultant predicted a “huge mess” that could reflect poorly on President Bush and suggested that his re-election staff be brought in to minimize any political liability, records show. Two weeks later, a Florida official summarizing the hurricane response wrote that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was handing out housing assistance “to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind.””

Particularly interesting is an earlier finding by the Sun-Sentinel that a considerable amount of disaster aid was distributed outside where the hurricanes had struck, “FEMA has been under scrutiny since the Sun-Sentinel first reported in October that the agency was awarding millions of dollars in disaster funds to residents of Miami-Dade County, even though the county did not experience hurricane conditions. At Nelson’s urging, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is investigating. Earlier this month, 14 Miami-Dade residents who received assistance were indicted on fraud charges. As of March 16, FEMA had given $31 million to 12,891 applicants in Miami-Dade for damage claimed from Frances.”


Connecting Dots for a Nuclear Stratagem

March 24th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here are the dots that I am connecting:

According to yesterday’s New York Times,

(1) “In a speech on Monday at a two-day conference on “nuclear energy for the 21st century,” Constance Morella, the American ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, told an audience of government officials and nuclear experts from more than 70 countries that American support of nuclear energy “has never been stronger.” Nuclear energy is clean, reliable, necessary for the world to have a secure energy supply and “a benefit to humankind,” she said. Ms. Morella cited a study estimating that global energy demand was expected to rise by about 60 percent over the next 25 years. “America hasn’t ordered a nuclear power plant since the 1970’s, and it’s time to start building again,” she quoted President Bush as saying recently.”

(2) According to an AP story, “In a message to the conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman cited a University of Chicago study that showed nuclear power “can become competitive with electricity produced by plants fueled by coal or gas” because of new technologies delivering more efficient reactors. Echoing recent comments by President Bush, Bodman said: “America hasn’t ordered a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s and it’s time to start building again.””

(3) When President Bush’s science advisor John Marburger visited us last month he said, “We have a very big job ahead of us. Every country is going to have to use new technology, either to remove the Co2 from emissions from hydrocarbon burning power plants or to use some other way, some alternate method, of energy generation. So, this is what we have got to do and I think that we should get on with it and not get hung up over the Kyoto Protocol.”

(4) Dr. Marburger also said in reply to my question, “What is the future for the next four years on climate change like under the Bush Administration?”

“Well, I think we’ll have to wait. I think perhaps the international conferences that are coming up, there is a G8 meeting, I think that there will be opportunities for the President to say what he intends to do. I don’t have — I mean, I can’t talk too much of words in the President’s mouth, but it is pretty clear where he has been and his commitment to this approach to taking responsibility for CO2 emissions is impressive to me. And I think that we ought to take advantage of the fact that we have a President who is willing to make and to advocate for that kind of investment, whatever we think about the details of the relation between Co2 emissions and actual climate change.”

(5) Condaleeza Rice recently said something similar in response to a question about climate change, “… from our point of view, from the point of view of the President, who has put forward an energy plan, a comprehensive energy plan to the Congress, we need to tap all supplies, all prospective supplies of energy, and that includes nuclear energy. The United States has not been in that business for a long 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.

Science Advice at the UN

March 23rd, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

According to David Dickson at, “Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has announced plans to create a high-level advisory panel to help integrate science and technology into the development efforts of all the member organisations of the UN system.”

Interestingly, the new advisory body will be called the “Council of Development Advisers.” The name of the proposed new council is worth noting because it places a focus on the end (development) not the means (science and technology). Too often efforts to integrate science and technology in decision making wind up substituting means for ends. That is, the focus is on science and technology, and not how we make decisions with or about science and technology to improve outcomes.

Dickson writes that “Annan has also announced that he is to appoint a scientific advisor to provide “strategic forward-looking” scientific advice on policy matters, with responsibility for “mobilising scientific and technological expertise within the United Nations system and from the broader scientific and academic community”. One of the key roles of the science advisor will be to work closely with the new council.”

Dickson attributes Annan’s actions to recommendations offered by a task force of a task force of the Millennium Project focused on science, technology and innovation.

The tension between means and ends is sure to play out in this context. One interpretation of the task force’s recommendation is that “Eliminating global poverty, disease and hunger are “utterly affordable” but need concerted action from rich nations, including a massive increase in funding for scientific research addressing the needs of the world’s poor.” Many scientists will be certain to pay attention to the phrase “massive increase in funding” however the real challenge is to connect the results of such funding to “addressing the needs of the world’s poor.”

As we’ve discussed here on numerous occasions (see, e.g., here and here) a fundamental challenge of contemporary science policy is not just in advancing science and technology but in making decisions about and with science that improve the human condition.