Archive for June, 2004

A Special Journal Issue on Interdisciplinarity

June 30th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The journal History of Intellectual Culture has a special issue out on interdisciplinarity titled, “FREE SPACE: Reconsidering Interdisciplinary Theory and Practice.”

Here is an excerpt from the guest editors’ introduction:

“Interdisciplinarity (i) accepted the presence of disciplines as a fact of academic life, and (ii) endorsed disciplines as the building blocks of university programs. However, traditional disciplinary values and priorities are less of a fact in the academic world as programs have shifted focus from the construction of knowledge to the development of skills (e.g., enterprise skills, communication skills, information technology skills, interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills, and the like). As the naturalness of disciplinarity is questioned, the status of disciplines as the only source of university programs likewise becomes dubious.

So, in one sense, interdisciplinarity reinforces the illusion that disciplinary knowledge is somehow natural. But does this then mean that we can give up on the concept of interdisciplinarity altogether? It seems more likely that new attention must be given to the ways in which knowledge is produced, recognizing the contingent historical fact of disciplinarity while not supposing that disciplinary knowledge is natural and that the knowledge that emerges from between disciplines is merely an afterthought.”

One particularly interesting paper in the issue is “Science and Public Discourse” by Liora Salter.  Salter distinguishing “working science” (i.e., basic research) from “mandated science” (i.e., science focused on societal problems) and the consequences of the growth in “mandated science.”  It’s worth a read.

Understanding Torture: What Role for Science?

June 30th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

On Monday the AAAS held a half day forum on torture as “part of a series of international activities to observe the United Nation’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.”

One speaker, Martha Huggins, the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University, observed in her presentation that there are “political, social, and cultural facilitating conditions that promote, encourage, and excuse” torture.
According to a AAAS story on the event:

“During a question and answer period, one person in the audience identified himself as a former military policeman and suggested the panel was presenting only one side of the argument. But what should happen, he asked, if terrorists warned of a nuclear device set to detonate in New York in two hours? If they apprehended suspects, might it not be justified to take extreme measures to induce them to talk if that might save millions of lives?  But [panelst Robvert K.] Goldman [of Washington College of Law at American University] insisted that torture would not be justified, and he said the question itself marks the top of the slippery slope. ‘If you authorize the use of torture in the case of the ticking bomb,’ he said, ‘then it will eventually work its way down to protected persons.’”

It seems to me that even if social science may provide useful information about prison and detainment conditions that foster torture, there is nothing that any type of science can tell us about if and when torture might be justified (though, perhaps the humanities can shed some insight). In its forum and report on the forum the AAAS does not appear to have made any distinction between what science can and can’t offer to thinking about torture, and that creates conditions ripe for a misuse of science (in our taxonomy, arguing politics/morals through science).

Frames Trump the Facts

June 29th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The July/August, 2004 issue of Sierra Magazine has an interesting interview with Berkeley’s George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics, on the “framing” of environmental issues.  (A side note, Lakoff seems to be a hot commodity as he also appears in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly in an excellent article by James Fallows on the upcoming presidential debates.)

After being asked to define “framing,” Sierra asks Lakoff “How about “protecting the environment”? Is there a frame embedded there too?”  Lakoff’s reply includes the following:

“Environmentalists have adopted a set of frames that doesn’t reflect the vital importance of the environment to everything on Earth. The term “the environment” suggests that this is an area of life separate from other areas of life like the economy and jobs, or health, or foreign policy. By not linking it to everyday issues, it sounds like a separate category, and a luxury in difficult times.”

Then Sierra asks “What’s the alternative?”  Lakoff replies:


Follow-up on John Kerry and Science Budgets

June 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In last Friday’s Chronicle of Higher Education is a story with the following headline, “Kerry Says That, as President, He Would Increase Spending on Scientific Research”.

The article states: “The president has also come under fire for what some academic scientists see as his lackluster spending on research” and “To pay for his plan, Mr. Kerry said he would raise some $30-billion through auctions of parts of the broadcast spectrum, which would be freed up by a proposal to accelerate the transition to digital television.”

A check with data on actual science funding suggests that there are some real misunderstandings here by both the Chronicle and John Kerry.  I wonder if Kerry’s advisors on science policy will help him out here, or set him up for future problems by allowing him to make claims that don’t square with the facts and promises that can’t be met?

Here is an analysis of science budgets from last week.

Henry Waxman, HHS, and a Bush Administration Misuse of Science

June 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) has written several letters to Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) disagreeing with “a new HHS policy requires the World Health Organization to submit all requests for expert scientific advice to political officials at HHS who pick which federal scientists will be permitted to respond.”

The two letters are worth reading in full (first letter and second letter) to understand the details of Representative Waxman’s complaint.  In short, Representative Waxman expresses concerns that the new policy will (1) limit access by the WHO to U.S. experts, (2) cause delays in the sharing of expertise, and (3) provide the U.S. a means to delay consideration by the international community of controversial health topics.

For its part, the HHS observes in its letter to the WHO announcing its new policy (included with the first Waxman letter) that “U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and U.S. Civil Service regulations require HHS experts to serve as representatives of the U.S. Government at all times and advocate U.S. Government policies.”

So, does the HHS policy amount to a misuse of science?  


NASA and Safety

June 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

As NASA announces plans to be “sustainable and affordable” is the agency rolling the dice on safety?

Gadgets over Glitz

June 25th, 2004

Posted by: admin

A recent UK poll indicates that the British public covets practicality in its technological innovations (as reported by the BBC News and the Guardian). When asked to rank their top 10 innovations, 2000 British citizens opted for gadgets over glitz. The smoke alarm came in first place, followed closely by the microwave oven, air bags, and long-life light bulbs. These results back the assertion expressed in the report that “technology is no longer the main driver of product innovation… user requirements are now leading”

According to David Harrison, head of design at Brunel University and the lead author of the survey, “these choices demonstrate that people in the UK are more interested in practical, everyday innovation than revolutionary dreams.”

While not entirely surprising, these results have noteworthy science policy implications as they play into research funding debates of basic versus applied science. The study raises the question – if the public primarily values utility, should technological research funding reflect that? And if so, will this require a shift in current funding patterns or will it simply promote business as usual?

And out of curiosity, what would the poll results have been stateside?

Read the rest of the report. Download file

Publish-and-Perish in Italy

June 24th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Scientist has an interesting opinion piece by a group of European researchers on how decisions are made about tenure in Italy. An excerpt:

“…internal politics, cronyism, and exchanges of favors among committee members are strongly facilitated in Italy by the very limited weight that the rules assign to scientific excellence. What would be the motivation for doing high-quality research when only 10 (in some Universities only five!) “publications” are sufficient, even for full professorship, and presentations to congresses (with no peer review) may carry almost the same weight as full papers? … All this helps explain why only 10.3% of the EU scientific publications come from Italy, compared to 15.2% from France, 20.3% from Germany, and 23.7% from the UK.”

Read the whole thing here.

Science Budgets and Nobel Laureates for Kerry

June 23rd, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Earlier this week 48 Nobel laureates issued a letter in support of John Kerry. They listed four reasons why they were supporting Kerry

1. “President Bush and his administration are compromising our future on each of these counts. By reducing funding for scientific research, they are undermining the foundation of America’s future.”
2. “By setting unwarranted restrictions on stem cell research, they are impeding medical advances.”
3. “By employing inappropriate immigration practices, they are turning critical scientific talent away from our shores.”
4. “Unlike previous administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, the Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific advice in the policy-making that is so important to our collective welfare.”

I’d like to focus on the first of these justifications, which does not appear to be grounded in the facts. And before going on, given how such things are interpreted, let me first unequivocally state that this blog should in no way be interpreted as supporting President Bush’s reelection. There are plenty of good reasons to vote against President Bush. The focus here is on getting the facts correct about science policy. And if the 48 Nobel laureates wish to support John Kerry, then good for them. They should, however, make sure that their justifications for such stand up to intellectual scrutiny.


Hurricane Forecasts: From Computer Screen to Evacuation

June 23rd, 2004

Posted by: admin

Several US newspapers recently ran an Associated Press story on a new NOAA research initiative called the Joint Hurricane Testbed. The project aims to better facilitate pre-hurricane evacuation decisions by brining together “the academic, operational, and research communities in hurricane forecasting.” In other words, it gives everyone a seat at the hurricane forecasting table from the beginning. And as a result, it hopes to “transition research projects into operations faster and more efficiently” according to Max Mayfield, National Hurricane Center Director.

At a time when agencies are all abuzz with dreams of fast and efficient technology transfer, this program has definite potential. It coordinates the activities and goals of each community – the academic, the operational, and the research – from the outset, rather than relying on the often-flawed academy-to-research-to-operations information pathway.

Several other elements must be in place to ensure a successful transfer of research from operations, but this program is starting right so it’ll be worth checking back after the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season.