Archive for July, 2004

Ask Prometheus: OTA

July 30th, 2004

Posted by: admin

We have something a bit different today, the first in hopefully a long series of Ask Prometheus posts. Ask Prometheus allows us to answer inquiries from our readers directly, or by pulling in other experts as we do today.

Kerry McEvilly writes to us, “Do you think that maybe it’s time to re-establish the OTA [Office of Technology Assessment] to add some semblance of continuity in what our elected leaders are getting in the way of science policy advice?”

To answer we’ve asked Paul Komor, former OTA policy analyst and Project Director, and Rad Byerly, former chief of staff of the House Science Committee, for their responses.

The full responses follow, but first a couple excerpts.

Dr. Komor states, “OTA’s demise was not the result of careful deliberation, a thoughtful comparison of costs and benefits, or defeat by its political enemies. Rather, it was largely being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

And Dr. Byerly says, “In the main Congress is a reactive institution; it does not take up a subject until it is an issue needing attention, which often means that Members and interest group are already choosing sides.”

The full-text follows and feel free to leave comments:


UPI Story on Science Funding

July 29th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yesterday the UPI ran a very good story on science funding prospects. Here are a few excerpts:

“Though is it widely agreed the U.S. economy is based on discoveries from such research, there is little chance that more money will be found for science this year … or next year … or the year after that. The more distant future looks even worse.”

“Part of the reason for the cuts is election-year competition. Funding for NSF falls within a larger bill that also covers the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. Under the same fiscal roof are EPA and NASA, the only federal agency — other than the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security — to receive a budget increase request for FY 2005. The needs of these agencies are real and they are better-connected politically. “This is described by both the majority and minority as a no-winners bill,” a senior congressional staffer told United Press International. “The two places that actually got big increases (the VA’s Veteran’s Health Administration and HUD’s Section 8 housing) … neither of those groups is happy,” the staffer said, adding, “both of them would say it is not enough even to maintain current services.””

“The point, said the staffer, is not the specific numbers but the trend. The numbers will change every year but the trend reflects the priority and plans of the administration. Would a Democratic White House or Congress make a difference? “If you look at the macro policy generated by the tax and discretionary and mandatory spending numbers,” the staffer said, “it is very hard to see this getting a whole lot better, no matter who is president or who is in control of the House or Senate. The staffer continued, “If there is a change in political control, then there probably will be some change in amounts for discretionary spending — and science will be one of those areas that I think will compete for that — but I think that there is a general view that tough times are ahead.””

Here is the link to the whole story.

Radio Interview

July 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Today at 12:30 PM Pacific I’ll be appearing on a radio show called Against the Grain which is carried on KPFA 94.1 FM & KFCF 88.1 FM in Northern and Central California. The topic will be global warming. The program has a nice web archive, so we’ll post a link when available. You can also listen to it live online from this link.

NRC Report on Genetically Engineered Foods

July 28th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The NRC is releasing a report today on risks posed by genetically engineered foods. Media coverage suggests different interpretations of what the report says.

A New York Times story today suggests some confusion about whether or not the report says that GE crops are more risky than foods modified using other techniques:

“Genetically engineered crops do not pose health risks that cannot also arise from crops created by other techniques, including conventional breeding … the report said that genetic engineering and other techniques used to create novel crops could result in unintended, harmful changes to the composition of food … The report said that genetic engineering was more likely to cause unintended effects than the other techniques used to develop plants except for the mutation-inducing technique.”

An A.P. story in the Washington Post characterizes the study as follows:

“Federal regulators should look more closely at the potential health effects of some genetically modified plants before they can be grown as commercial crops, a scientific advisory panel said yesterday. It also said regulators should check for potential food safety problems after people eat the products. The report by a committee of the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine said regulators should target tighter scrutiny at genetically engineered varieties that have greater levels of biological differences from current plants.”

The report release will be carried via a webcast today at 11AM Eastern.

Legislative Assistant Position (Science)

July 27th, 2004

Posted by: admin

Congressman Ehlers is seeking candidates for a Legislative Assistant to handle Science Committee issues in his personal office. The person would be responsible for advising the Congressman and developing policy on all scientific issues that are before Congress. In addition, the person would be responsible for staying abreast of developments in the different fields of science and briefing the Congressman on new issues or discoveries relevant to federal policy, working with the various scientific organizations on policy and scientific issues, and representing the Congressman’s views to the scientific community. The qualifications for the position include:

A PhD is required;
background in science policy;
strong writing, communication, and networking skills;
ability to keep abreast of research in different fields of science;
knowledge of PowerPoint;
and experience in the federal legislative process.

Please e-mail resume and CV (as appropriate) to, with the subject “Ehlers Science Position”. No phone calls or faxes please.

Distinguishing Climate Policy and Energy Policy: Follow Up

July 27th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In a post of mine earlier this week I observed that the climate mitigation community has largely ignored the geopolitical rationale for reducing dependence on fossil fuels. In a comment a reader asks for links to a bit more detail on this assertion. Here are a few articles of mine on this topic.

See this 1998 paper and also a related analysis now under review that updates and extends the 1998 argument:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 1998: Rethinking the Role of Adaptation in Climate Policy. Global Environmental Change, 8(2), 159-170.

Pielke, Jr., R. A. (submitted). Misdefining Climate Change: Consequences for Science and Action, Environmental Science and Policy.

For a somewhat less wonky discussion see this 2000 article in The Atlantic Monthly I co-authored with Dan Sarewitz:

Sarewitz, D., R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2000: Breaking the Global-Warming Gridlock. The Atlantic Monthly, 286(1), 55-64.

Comments welcomed!

Two Views of Science in Society

July 27th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Today’s New York Times contains two almost diametrically opposed views of science in society.

The first view is presented in a profile of Dr. Gerald D. Fischbach, who has an idealistic view of science unfettered by politics:

“He speaks of “a fundamentalist streak” in the administration’s stem cell policy, and] feels passionately that science should not be ruled by politics. “It drives me nuts,” he said on a recent morning in his large, airy office on West 168th Street. “When you begin arguments based on convictions and not open to scientific discourse, the whole process starts to crumble, and that worries me, not only with stem cells but in the whole sphere of scientific inquiry,” he says. “It gets to a very complex issue of regulation of science. Scientists have to be able to do unfettered research, as long as it is in the boundaries of societal mores. And right now, and I think Ron Reagan is concerned about it, there are more and more regulations of science for political reasons. I think it is very threatening. I think it is as threatening as any time in my lifetime, including the McCarthy era,” he says.”

But he fails to acknowledge that setting the “boundaries of social mores” is fundamentally a political act. There is a lot of science that is not conducted (e.g., contemporary versions of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or areas of WMD development) because such research in some way exceeds socially acceptable boundaries. Thanks to its connections with the abortion issue, in the U.S. stem cell research just happens to be an issue currently close to the boundary of acceptability and politics is the means that our society uses to define where those boundaries lie.

A second Times article by Abigail Zuger, M.D presents a more realpolitik (and more sobering) perspective on science and society:


Health Research Priorities

July 26th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In an article in the Lancet, David H Molyneux, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, challenges current priorities for spending on health issues. He argues that considerable societal benefits can be achieved by focusing attention on diseases that are currently less politically popular, but nonetheless tractable from the standpoint of improving human health outcomes. Here is an extended excerpt:

“The Millennium Development Goals and a plethora of initiatives have focused on the control of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. However, a large group of diseases has been confined to the “other diseases” category by health policy makers and politicians. These so-called neglected diseases are the viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections of the tropics (often vector borne), together with acute respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases of children. Despite the availability of cost-effective, stable, and successful control or elimination interventions, large numbers of the world’s poorest people remain afflicted or are at risk from this group of diseases. The focus of health policy makers on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, as well as emerging or reemerging diseases causes funding for neglected diseases to be overlooked, with deleterious effects on the social and economic wellbeing of the poorest quintile of populations in the least developed and low-to-middle income countries…

If we are to ensure the efficient use of the substantial resources needed to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, then a small investment in proven, cost-effective interventions against “other diseases”—preferably from the Global Fund resources—will bring sustainable public-health benefits, integrate well with and strengthen the health system, reduce disabling conditions, and bring collateral benefits to the health of the poorest nations. Policy makers are ignoring scientific and operational evidence that interventions against “other diseases” are effective. By concentrating on so few agents, current policies could perpetuate inequity, disrupt health financing policies, divert human resources from achievable goals, and deny opportunities for impoverished health systems to improve. Current policy also raises ethical issues. Resources are being transferred to interventions against the big three that, realistically, have only a limited chance of success as they are reactive and do not adequately control transmission—a pre-requisite for any public health impact. The proactive pro-poor interventions against neglected diseases succeeded by aiming to reduce transmission. Allocation of a small fraction of the Global Fund resources to “neglected” diseases would be likely to achieve broader public health goals.”

The whole article can be found here.

Distinguishing Climate Policy and Energy Policy

July 26th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yesterday’s New York Times included interesting story on the expected costs of climate change regulations to the auto industry. This excerpt is worth highlighting:

“”As a U.S. auto analyst, I’m very concerned about the risk side of the equation,” said [John A. Casesa, an analyst at Merrill Lynch]. “For the domestic auto companies, we’ve had an accommodating energy policy, but there are new issues like climate change, and there are new geopolitical issues, defense issues, that relate to our energy policy.

“There’s the potential for a confluence of events to occur,” he added. “Americans could be more concerned about climate change, while at the same time we try to reduce our dependence on the Middle East for oil, for national security or political reasons. If these two strands come together, that would put a lot of pressure on policy makers, which would invariably lead back to higher fuel-economy standards.””

For the most part, advocates of climate mitigation policies have ignored one of these strands.

On Not Regulating the Regulators

July 26th, 2004

Posted by: admin

An article in the New York Times this weekend describes the Bush administration’s opposition to consumer lawsuits regarding products approved by the FDA (“In a Shift, Bush Moves to Block Medical Suits”).

There are serious considerations involved in allowing a potential onslaught of such lawsuits, including their possible effect on health costs, the availability of medical products on the market, and the possibility that states would reach different conclusions regarding the safety of a medical device.

According to the article, the administration states that different conclusions would lead to “chaos for the regulated industry and F.D.A.” That may be so, and yet this possibility raises grave questions about the goal of having clear and straightforward regulatory policy if it comes at the expense of credibility in the eyes of the public.

The administration is banking on the credibility of the FDA: “if” (according to the article) “a local judge or jury finds that a drug or device is unsafe, it is in direct conflict with the conclusion reached by the F.D.A. after years of rigorous testing and evaluation.”

Surely, expensive and rigorous testing must count for something. But for how much? Unassailability on the part of the product once it has been approved? That argument may work when the buyer is held responsible for his or her decision to purchase and use a product. But making the FDA responsible arguably takes the responsibility away from the consumer and undercuts the “buyer beware” argument.

The case is complicated (alas, not simplified) by the role of expertise, namely scientific expertise. The government position is based on the belief that consumer lawsuits would “interfere with federal regulation of drugs and devices, by encouraging “lay judges and juries to second-guess” experts at the F.D.A.” (ibid).

Deciding that “tested” science is unassailable is not quite the same as deciding that “proven” science is unassailable. Few today would endorse dragging Galileo or his contributions to trail. Furthermore, no one wants to see competent science and engineering innovations senselessly punished. Yet, circularly making medical drugs and devices immune from lawsuits on the grounds of the scientific expertise that underlies them amounts to technocratic tyranny.

Should attending to the need for clear regulation come at the cost of the need for such regulation in the first place?