Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Obama’s Scientific Integrity Memo

March 9th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Today, Obama signed an executive order lifting Bush’s ban on the use of federal funds for stem cell research, along with a memo addressing the general issue of scientific integrity in executive branch agencies. Here’s an excerpt from the memo:

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.  Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.  If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.  To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking.  The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

For many, this is not just about opening the door to a particular kind of medical research; they view it as a fundamental change in the role played by science in policy.

This seems to emerge in the media coverage of the event. There is considerable discrepancy between the actual contents of the memo, and what the media (and those they interview) have been saying about it. For example, on NPR:

DeGette says that during the Bush administration, scientific policy was often dictated by things other than scientific evidence.

Well, yes, of course it was. As is often said on this blog, policy is never dictated by science, and Obama’s memo says nothing that would suggest otherwise. It is very much focused on process and openness, but makes no statements about how science should influence decision making.

The Washington Post quotes Harold Varmus (former NIH director, Nobel laureate, and Obama advisor):

Today’s executive order “is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice . . . instead of dogma in developing federal policy”

This suggests that you can somehow use science instead of values to develop policy. But Obama’s stem cell decision is no less value driven than was George Bush’s. Regardless of your position, to come to a conclusion on the ethics of stem cell research you must wrestle with difficult issues such as the acceptability of destroying human embryos. Obama’s words and actions suggest nothing like the “determination” Varmus describes.

It’s important to remember that this event represents a political success — a shift away from one set of values, and toward another (though of course, it is not so black and white). It is not, by any means, a shift from politics toward science. Even if that were possible, it’s hard to see why it would be desirable.

From Wired Campaign to Not-So-Wired White House

February 15th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Feburary issue of Wired has a good analysis of the difficulty the Obama Administration is facing in converting their very Internet-savvy presidential campaign into an Internet-savvy government.  Keep in mind that this article was written prior to the Inauguration, so there is no assessment of progress so far.  But that doesn’t prevent the article from noting the particular legal and structural challenges facing the administration, and the high bar set by some of the administration’s promises.  For instance, President Obama has pledged to place bills online for public comment for five days prior to signing them into law.  That has yet to happen, including the stimulus package, which was finalized yesterday, and is expected to be signed on Tuesday.

Besides discussing the challenges and wisdom behind enabling the government with Web 2.0 technologies (the huge campaign e-mail list must be used by an outside entity, how much staff time can be spared to read thousands of comments, how do you archive all of this, etc.), the article also covers the patchwork nature of government websites and the few successful efforts to incorporate Web 2.0 technology (not happy with the No Fly List?  Go to the Transportation Security Administration’s blog and let them know).  If you’ve ever wondered why certain things aren’t happening with government and the Internet, this article is a good starting point.

Consolidation of Science Agencies: An Ongoing Debate

November 13th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Back in July, Science Magazine published a Policy Forum advocating the consolidation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US Geological Survey (USGS), into a single Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA). The primary rationale for the argument, formulated by several authors with considerable experience in the management of federally funded science, is that such an agency would be better equipped to deliver the “well-conceived, science-based, simultaneous responses on multiple scales, from global and national, to regional and local,” required for the “unprecedented environmental and economic challenges in the decades ahead.” I recommend reading the entire piece.

Last week, Science printed a response to that article, which, to our disappointment, was not the one submitted by Roger Pielke, Dan Sarewitz, Lisa Dilling, and me. So, after consulting with the original authors, we have decided to use Prometheus as a venue for continuing this discussion. I will include our unpublished letter below, and hope that Jim Baker will post their response in the comments, and we can go from there.

The short version of our response is that: 1.) there is no reason to think that the proposed consolidation would be good for science, and 2.) whether or not consolidation turns out to be good for science is irrelevant to the question of how best to orient scientific research so that it helps to address larger societal problems.

Here is our letter:

In a July 4 Policy Forum (1), a formidable group of experts on environmental research policy proposes the creation of an Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA) by combining NOAA and USGS.

We agree that the U.S. faces “unprecedented environmental and economic challenges” at the same time as the environmental sciences have experienced declining national investments and increasing politicization.  But reducing the number of key environmental science agencies from six to five will neither alleviate the challenges of inter-agency coordination, nor create a comprehensive research capacity. Moreover, the politics of ripping NOAA and the USGS out of their home departments (Commerce and Interior) would certainly lead to bruising political battles with unpredictable outcomes.  In a time of budget constraint, consolidation could make the problem worse for science by creating more conspicuous targets for political manipulation and budget cutting (2, 3).

Even more troubling is the “science push” approach that the authors advocate. ESSA’s proposed design puts data acquisition and basic science at the core of efforts to develop decision-relevant information that is then delivered to the outside world.  Decades of experience and scholarship, including a recent NRC assessment of the Nation’s climate science enterprise (4), shows that this approach is good at advancing basic knowledge but largely ineffective at providing useful knowledge for decision makers.

The most successful environmental science programs—including those in the USGS and NOAA—have long ago moved away from a simple linear approach (“do the science, then communicate it”) to embrace an integrated model where research and engagement are tightly linked from the outset, so that research agendas and products are responsive to the needs and capabilities of information users, and users in turn know what they can expect from scientists (5-10).  What makes them successful is not the breadth of their research portfolios, but their approach to research and problem solving. A truly innovative approach to improving society’s capacity to respond to environmental challenges would focus investments on leveraging the experience and resources of agency programs with ongoing decision support and service capacity, such as hazards and water monitoring programs at USGS, and the Coastal Services Center and National Integrated Drought Information Systems at NOAA.  Absent such innovation, bureaucratic reshuffling is unlikely to improve the value of science in addressing society’s most urgent challenges.

1.    M. Schaefer et al., Science 321, 44 (July 4, 2008, 2008).
2.    D. Sarewitz, Issues in Science & Technology 23, 31 (Summer, 2007).
3.    D. Goldston, Nature 451,  (2008).
4.    NRC, “Evaluating Progress of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program:  Methods and Preliminary Results”  (National Academies Press, 2007).
5.    D. W. Cash, J. C. Borck, A. G. Patt, Science Technology Human Values 31, 465 (July 1, 2006, 2006).
6.    H. Meinke et al., Climate Research 33, 101 (2006).
7.    D. Sarewitz, R. A. Pielke, Environmental Science & Policy 10, 5 (2007).
8.    K. Jacobs, G. Garfin, M. Lenart, Environment 47, 6 (2005).
9.    S. Agrawala, K. Broad, D. H. Guston, Science Technology Human Values 26, 454 (October 1, 2001, 2001).
10.    D. Cash et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100, 8086 (2003).

Why shouldn’t we expect nonprofits to ‘push politics?’

October 9th, 2008

Posted by: admin

In this week’s Denver Post, there is a series of articles criticizing the Colorado Democracy Alliance. The articles insinuate impropriety among a loose collection of left-leaning nonprofits. The reporter, Jessica Fender, argues in her article “Progressive gang uses nonprofits to push politics”:

Colorado’s best-known progressive donors are advancing their political and ideological agenda through a web of advocacy and nonprofit groups, many of which claim nonpartisanship and receive tax exemptions.

The 37 organizations that collectively receive millions at the direction of the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CoDA) serve unique purposes in the progressive power brokers’ toolbox.

They build voting blocs, provide policy research, shape media communications, train progressive leaders or encourage civic engagement, according to the alliance’s organizing documents.

She continues in a second article:

The model, which appears to legally skirt federal regulations that prevent coordination between candidate campaigns and issue groups, has proved so successful at turning a red state blue that it could cause nationwide change as 18 other states prepare to adopt it.

While Ms. Fender might not like the outcome, what is wrong with a nonprofit engaging in politics?

Yes, there are a number of laws that restrict nonprofit behavior in politics. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit — the most restrictive tax designation – cannot support specific candidates for office, contribute to political campaigns, or tell its members how to vote.

However, 501(c)(3) organizations can engage in issue advocacy, sponsor talk by candidates, and attempt to persuade candidates to adopt the organization’s position. Certainly, these are political activities!

Rescue Package Passed with Bonuses – None for Science and Technology

October 4th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Besides demonstrating the continuing ineptitude of Congress and its leadership, the bailout – or what’s not in it – is further evidence of the impotence of science and technology funding advocates.  Part of the reason the second rescue package garnered sufficient votes is the spending piggybacked onto the original plan.  You may have already heard of the various tax credits and incentives added to the bill, including the R & D and alternative energy provisions I mentioned earlier this week. Taxpayers for Common Sense have analyzed the bill and found that the Senate added $110 billion to the $700 billion figure we’re all very familiar with by now.  None of that money will go toward fully funding the science agencies targeted by the America COMPETES Act.  Between the bailout and the continuing resolution that will fund the first half of the current fiscal year, science and technology research funding continues to lose.

These losses suggest to me that the one ’success’ research communities have had since the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget – the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report – is actually a failure.  That research and policy communities still perceive it a success – criticism aside – compounds the failure.  It’s as though the science and technology advocacy communities are classical physicists in an Einsteinian universe.  The world does not correspond with their perceptions of it, and they don’t recognize it, much less know what to do about it.


Budgeting by Continuing Resolution Continues, Congress Earns its Dismal Approval Ratings

September 27th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Both NPR and Congressional Quarterly are reporting that amidst all of the financial bailout negotiations, Congress today did clear a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government until early March 2009.  This marks the third consecutive fiscal year (which starts October 1) in which the Congress has failed to pass even a majority of its appropriations bills before the start of that fiscal year.  This is just one reason why their approval rating is lower than the President’s.

This professional incompetence is both not surprising and a bad sign for any programs depending on consistent funding – whether that funding is constant or promised with a constant rate of growth.  I think research communities need to seriously consider finding alternative sources of funding.  Independent of the twin fiscal drains of war and bailouts (the auto industry got $25 billion today), federal funding can no longer be counted on, even at the more meager levels.  The biomedical community completely failed to manage its wealth of riches when the NIH budget was doubled, and they have too many students and too many researchers landing hard.  I am concerned that all research communities in this country will be neither ready nor able to handle a decrease in resources.  We’ve just been on the gravy train too long to see it crashing into the painted hole in the rock.

I’m afraid I can’t describe this in stark enough terms for people to act accordingly.  If you thought science and technology were ignored before, get ready for fiscal apathy.  If you think the expected crunch of the mid-90s following the Cold War was successfully avoided, consider the possibility that it was only delayed 15 years.  To borrow climate science language – adaptation strategies are needed now that mitigation appears to be unsuccessful.

Ensuring Yellowstone’s Future

September 26th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Todd Wilkinson, author of Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth, gave Professor Susan G. Clark’s new book Ensuring Greater Yellowstone’s Future: Choices for Leaders and Citizens a rave review in this week’s Jackson Hole News and Guide. For the last five years, I have worked on natural resource issues in the Yellowstone region. I could not agree more with Todd’s assessment of the book. Of course, my opinion has nothing to do with the fact Susan was my master’s degree advisor. ;-)

Compared with pulp fiction or even the latest sleaze in the National Enquirer, books that are written about the operational process of government bureaucracies often make a strong case for the virtue of narcolepsy.

What I mean to say is show me a dry scientific treatise on the topic of administering Western public land management agencies, and I’ll find you readers who would rather be waterboarded than crack open the pages.

Despite its unflashy title, Ensuring Greater Yellowstone’s Future: Choices for Leaders and Citizens by Susan Clark, founder of the Jackson-based Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and adjunct professor of environmental policy at Yale University, is actually a barn burner.

It’s one of the best books ever written about the major jurisdictional fiefdoms the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers and fish and game departments from three states – that collectively oversee the management of more than 18 million public acres in this famous corner of the American West…


Will environmentalists miss George Bush?

September 13th, 2008

Posted by: admin

No doubt, environmentalists are counting down the days until President Bush leaves office. However, is this parting bittersweet? Consider the following figure on the number of Americans that claim to belong to an environmental organization.

According to this dataset, the number of American’s that belong to an environmental organization correlates with presidential party affiliation; claimed membership is approximately 50% greater during a Republican presidency.


You Have to Protect Your Core

August 7th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In 2003 Dan Sarewitz and I wrote an article titled “Wanted: Scientific Leadership on Climate” (PDF). In that article we made the following brash assertion:

What happens when the scientific community’s responsibility to society conflicts with its professional self interest? In the case of research related to climate change the answer is clear: Self interest trumps responsibility.

Our argument was that the scientific community sought to take care of its own interests first while “the needs and capabilities of decisionmakers who must deal with climate change have played little part in guiding research priorities.”

If you need any evidence that little has changed in the five years since we wrote that article, have a look at this story by Andy Revkin in today’s New York Times. The article discusses the termination of the Center for Capacity Building at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the nation’s largest government-supported atmospheric (and related) sciences research lab.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research, an important hub for work on the causes and consequences of climate change, has shut down a program focused on strengthening poor countries’ ability to forecast and withstand droughts, floods and other climate-related hazards.

The move, which center officials say resulted from the shrinking of federal science budgets, is being denounced by many experts on environmental risk, who say such research is more crucial than ever in a world with rising populations exposed to climate threats.

In e-mail exchanges, these experts said the eliminated program, the Center for Capacity Building, was unique in its blend of research and training in struggling countries.

The Center for Capacity Building (still online at was created in 2004. It built on decades of work by its director, Michael Glantz, a political scientist who has focused on the societal effects of natural climate extremes and any shifts related to accumulating greenhouse gases.

What were the budget implications of this Center?

Altogether, the eliminated program had an annual budget of about $500,000. The budget for the entire atmospheric research center is $120 million.

According to data from the NSF (p. 384 of this PDF), the primary funder of NCAR, the NSF contribution to the NCAR budget for FY2009 is expected to grow by 9.5%, and the lab’s budget is projected to grow by about $13 million over the next decade. NSF explains (emphasis added):

In FY 2009, GEO support for NCAR will increase by $9.0 million, to a total of $95.42 million to: accelerate efforts in provide robust, accessible, andinnovative information services and tools to the community; enhance NCAR’s ability to provide to researchers world-class ground, airborne, and space-borne observational facilities and services; increase our understanding of societal resilience to weather, climate, and other atmospheric hazards; and increase efforts to cultivate a scientifically literate and engaged citizenry and a diverse and creative workforce.

So why did NSF have to cut a large part of its commitment to the social sciences? Cliff Jacobs, NSF program officer responsible for NCAR, explained the decision as follows:

Clifford A. Jacobs, the National Science Foundation’s section head for the atmospheric research center and related programs, said the decision did not mean that the center was interested only in basic physical climate science.

“This came as a very, very difficult decision,” Dr. Jacobs said. “You have to protect your core activities, but as budgets keep shrinking you have to redefine your core.”

In this case “shrinking” must mean “not growing as fast as we would like” since the budget has obviously not been decreasing in size. Let this be a reminder that as we often enjoy discussing the politics of the left and the right, some of the the most damaging politics are found in the battle among disciplines within academia. Unfortunately, in this case the collateral damage extends far beyond academia:

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Dr. Glantz said that he was let go Monday and that three other researchers were also losing their jobs. One, Tsegay Wolde-Georgis, left a similar program at Columbia University less than a year ago to work with Dr. Glantz. Dr. Wolde-Georgis’s focus is bolstering the ability of African nations to anticipate and withstand drought and other climate shocks.

I look forward to the day when serving the needs of decision makers becomes part of the “core” in the leading institutions of the atmospheric sciences.

Science Debate 2008: an incoherent idea at best

February 7th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A blogosphere movement/proposal for a “Science Debate” among presidential candidates has picked up considerable steam, gathering the support of institutions and individuals throughout the science community, and spilling onto the pages of Science (here) and Nature (here and here) this week. It’s worth looking at just what this group is calling for:

“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.”