Archive for April, 2004

Policy Relevant Science in the Media

April 30th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Last week Nature published a letter titled “Dangers of crying wolf over risk of extinctions” by scholars at Oxford University. The letter warns, “simplifications of research findings may expose conservationists to accusations of crying wolf, and play directly into the hands of anti-environmentalists… many of the errors could be traced back to the press releases and agency newswires… [Then] Politicians and conservationists repeated these statements.”

For a range of participants in this process there are a number of reinforcing incentives for either emphasizing the dramatic or cherry picking convenient findings. For the university press office sensational and simple cause-effect press releases may increase the odds of news organizations covering the story. For reporters selective reporting may help to advance whatever personal agenda they may wish to advance. For scientists, accentuation of the extreme may provide access to or influence in political debates. For politicians, the “facts” suggest an authoritative basis for arguing their preferred outcomes. Of course, these reenforcing incentives exist across the political spectrum.

This is another form of the consequences of the “excess of objectivity” that I have written about on this blog.

Ann Henderson-Sellers has an excellent article about this process:

Henderson-Seller, A., 1998. Climate whispers: Media communication about climate change. Climatic Change 40:421-456.

What to do? Here is an article with a suggestion that the scientific community take some responsibility for going beyond presenting “just the facts” and assessing the significance of science:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2003: The Significance of Science, chapter in P. Dongi (ed.) The Governance of Science, Laterza, Rome, Italy, pp. 85-105. (Also available in Italian.)

Science Policy and Fiction

April 30th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Science policy is hot stuff these days. Herman Wouk has a new book out, A Hole in Texas, that focuses on the politis surrounding the shutting down of the superconducting super collider in the early 1990s. Dan Brown has a series of novels focused on encryption, NASA, science and religion. Two new movies portray threats associated with cloning, Godsend and global warming, The Day after Tomorrow.

Why this attention to such a wonky topic? As Herman Wouk tells NPR, there are not too many topics more important that science and technology in modern society.

Singing from the Same Sheet

April 29th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Does the debate over global warming and energy policy miss an important area of apparent bipartisan consensus on reasons to improve U.S. energy policy?

George W. Bush said on Wednesday,

“You can’t be an innovative society if you’re stuck on foreign sources of oil. You may be short-term, but long-term, I don’t see how we can be the world leader if we’re constantly dependent of foreign sources of oil.”

John Kerry’s campaign WWW site says,

“Americans spend more than $20 billion each year on oil from the Persian Gulf — often from nations that are unstable and hostile to our interests and our values. [John] Kerry believes that we must end this dangerous dependence because it leaves American security and the American economy vulnerable.”

So You Want to Be a Grad Student?

April 29th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

From the Village Voice, an interesting article.

“Here’s an exciting career opportunity you won’t see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read.”

Is there an overproduction of PhDs? Here are two differing perspectives on that question in the atmospheric sciences.

Beyond the Dustbowl: BT in Africa

April 28th, 2004

Posted by: admin

With southern Africa facing its fourth consecutive growing season of low crop yields and food insecurity, genetically modified crops and food aid are sure to be front-burner issues for yet another year.

For the past three years, southern Africa has faced debilitating drought and a resultant demand for both food aid and drought-resistant crops. Consequently, the EU-US led debate over genetic modification (GM) has spread to Africa, thereby engaging African leaders and diverting attention from other severe agricultural problems like poor soil, a failing transportation infrastructure, and unwelcoming markets for crops from subsistence farmers.

At its core, this is a technology policy debate about willingness to accept risk. Yet as both sides politicize the issue within Africa, they drag African leaders into what the New York Times called “an undeclared trade dispute between the EU with its powerful environmental activists and the US and its influential biotechnology industry.”

The result is an African GM debate as politically charged as ours. On one side lie leaders calling for agricultural biotechnology as a means to end hunger altogether. And on the other lie leaders who see agricultural biotechnology as “poison” sent to exploit the third world, even in the form of
food aid.

As this politicization continues, African agricultural development lies in limbo, waiting for an unlikely solution to the bickering. And yet, it cannot wait. African soils are severely nutrient depleted such that they can barely provide the crops necessary for a single season, let alone a surplus for seasons of drought.


The Day after Tomorrow

April 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

For the next month or so you can expect public discussions over climate change to be closely linked to the forthcoming movie The Day after Tomorrow. Reactions to the movie already have shown more than a little comedy and absurdity. For example,

*NASA reportedly asked its staff not to present themselves in discussions with the media as promoting the movie,

*a climate scientist commented with envy about how well the movie’s budget would fund his personal research,

*a long-time opponent of action on energy policy warning that the movie might, like The China Syndrome, lead to bad policies, and

*a prominent supporter of action on energy policy suggested that the movie’s scenario is real and worth investigating.

Meanwhile as the media seeks out comments scientists have been scrambling to position themselves politically and scientifically with respect to the movie, using various strategies. These various strategies will be worth closer examination in a future post.

In coming weeks I’ll have more to say about the movie – or more accurately, like everyone else I’ll use the movie to popularize our particular views on climate science and policy. I’ve got an article coming out soon and I’ll link it here.

For now, from here is the most honest and accurate comment (registration required) on the movie I’ve seen yet:

“Mark Gordon, producer on the $125 million pic, said no one involved in the picture planned to participate in the [environmental] campaign, and he didn’t think the sudden attention would affect “Day’s” box office potential.

‘If they want to use our picture to make people aware of their concerns about the environment, it’s not anything I have control over,’ Gordon said. ‘My biggest issue is that the movie opens to the biggest number we can. The fact that there is enthusiasm, controversy and discussion is only good for our business.’”

On the PhD and Adjunctification

April 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting story about the Invisible Adjunct closing down her popular blog which discussed the role of adjunct faculty in the modern academy.

An excerpt from the Chronicle article on the Invisible Adjunct’s views:

“Can’t professors see that a system producing so many people who can’t get jobs is not an indictment of the aspiring faculty members, but of the system itself? Or if you really think that these adjuncts aren’t of high enough caliber to hire, then the graduate schools are failures, not the students.”

If you are interested in the role of the modern university in today’s science and technology enterprise check it out.

UK Foresight on Floods

April 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The United Kingdom’s Office of Science and Technology has a fascinating project called Foresight. According to its website, “The Foresight programme either identifies potential opportunities for the economy or society from new science and technologies, or it considers how future science and technologies could address key future challenges for society.”

The project is part technology assessment, part science and technology policy, and part delineation of policy alternatives.

Foresight came to my attention because of its recent report on Flood and Coastal Defence, but it also has projects in Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs, Cyber Trust and Crime Prevention, Exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum, and Cognitive Systems.

The recently released flood report (in PDF) is exceedingly well done. It considers both climate and socioeconomic factors as drivers of future flood risk, it discusses significant and irreducible uncertainties, it considers mitigation and adaptation responses as complements, and it presents a wide range of policy responses without seeking to advocate a favored few. In short, it is perhaps the best example of a climate assessment that I’ve seen.

A few excerpts from the flood report’s executive summary:


NAS President’s Address

April 27th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Bruce Alberts, President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), gave a speech on April 19, 2004 that covered a wide range of science policy issues. He reminds us of the overarching goals of the NAS:

“First, to work tirelessly to strengthen the U.S. scientific enterprise in the national interest, and second, to spread science and its values vigorously throughout our nation and the world.”

He observes that, “most of the reports that the National Academies produce each year for our government address “science for policy.” Each of these presents a consensus view of the science and technology that underlie a particular set of decisions confronting policy-makers.”

One standard of success he highlights is that NAS reports do not always serve one particular interest: “Our aim has always been to bring the truth concerning science and technology to Washington. This truth must be free of any partisan considerations. Evidence that we are succeeding comes from a sense that we often seem to make both sides of a debate somewhat uncomfortable with our reports: each side will generally like some of our conclusions, but not all of what we say.” And he provides an example of this by joining those of all political persuasions who claim to be “serving the nation through an insistence on sound science.”

He concludes by identifying three challenges for the scientific community:


Academic Orthodoxy

April 27th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, has an interesting essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The essay is undoubtedly motivated by the efforts of David Horowitz to highlight an apparent lack of ideological diversity in the ranks of university professors. But Balch’s essay is much broader than this debate and worth a read. An excerpt:

“Although interesting and useful work continues to be done in the humanities and social sciences, advancing, in limited areas, knowledge of a typically descriptive character, broad theoretic syntheses commanding anything like a consensus have generally not emerged. Also unlike the natural sciences, sweeping applications of new knowledge have failed to flow from these fields into the larger world. Most disappointing, many have been shown to be highly susceptible to penetration by fads and sects, at times out of a desire to mimic the hard sciences in method and jargon, at times to replace a waning passion for inquiry with a zeal for causes. One crucial result has been a substantial contraction of serious academic discourse about the human condition, and the range of philosophical, cultural, and public-policy issues to which that condition gives rise.”

Balch raises some serious questions about the roles of universities, disciplines, and expertise in contributing knowledge to the broader society. Read the whole thing.