Archive for November, 2008

ScienceDebate 2008 Borrows Tactics from the Big Three

November 30th, 2008

Posted by: admin

…automakers, that is.

I’ve never been a supporter of ScienceDebate 2008, as regular readers might remember.  For me it seemed like a lot of well-intentioned people exerting plenty of energy to produce a piece of political theater where candidates could demonstrate their ability to recite campaign documents.  That said, I found it encouraging that they would try and continue their efforts past the elections.  It was unclear exactly what they would be doing, but no sense in rushing.

The post-election report, however, shows that the organizers see no particular problem in asking for money without a plan, much like the Big Three automakers that recently flew to Washington with hat in hand.  Amidst all the discussion of a highly viewed website, lots of articles written, and media impressions made, there is but one paragraph of vague strategies for the future that read like more of the same.  What’s worse, they appear inclined to step into a science/anti-science fight that does not bode well for reasoned discussion.  Their ‘plan,’ such as it is, is simply to be ready to do the same thing in 2010.  That’s not a compelling reason to donate.  If you do want to see this effort survive, ask for specifics before you give them your dollars.  Much like many don’t want to see Detroit get money to do more of the same, I don’t want to see ScienceDebate get money to practice 20th century politics.  They should know better.

New Stimulus Legislation Might Include Science Funding

November 29th, 2008

Posted by: admin

In a recent FYI issued by the American Institute of Physics, there is some hope that any additional stimulus bill will include some funding for science agencies.  The source of this optimism is a bill introduced in the Senate last week by Majority Leader Reid (D-Nevada) and outgoing Appropriations Committee Chair Byrd (D-West Virginia).  The bill, S. 3689 (which you can read through the THOMAS website), as currently written includes additional funding for NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the U.S. Geological Survey.  I am cautiously optimistic.  However, legislation that is signed into law may have little in common with the bill that is introduced, so there needs to be a fight for these resources to even hope they survive the legislative process.  If the science funding provisions do not survive this bill, the process would have to start over come January 3rd, with a different Appropriations Committee Chair, likely Senator Inouye of Hawaii.

The Carbon Footprints of Scientific Activity

November 28th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A comment to my post on the electrical failure that shut down the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) suggested that scientific research should have some kind of carbon footprint analysis.  Given the large energy demands of the LHC, I understand the point.  And that person is not alone.  Nature News reports on the carbon footprint calculations made by a Norwegian researcher for him and his colleagues and the Norwegian Institute of Air Research.  The estimated footprint (travel alone) was 3.9-5.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.  This footprint is comparable to that of other professionals in science and other fields that travel frequently.  The news report (and the article) focuses on the carbon footprints associated with formal and informal scientific meetings, it seems reasonable to extend such analysis to large research facilities and instruments.  Can someone tell me how many trees I should plant to offset the new cyclotron?

Climate Change Impacts Part of Intelligence Report

November 27th, 2008

Posted by: admin

MSNBC reported last week that warnings and trends connected to climate change were included in the recently released “Global Trends 2025″ report issued by the National Intelligence Council.  I put this on par with the determination during the Clinton Administration that the AIDS pandemic in Africa qualified as a national security issue.  As I’ve heard before that wars over water and resources were likely in the future, the kinds of risks outlined by the National Intelligence Council are perhaps more updated than completely new.

Policy, Implementation, and Infrastructure: Flex-fuel Fleets are 1 for 3

November 26th, 2008

Posted by: admin

While I’m driving to my Thanksgiving destination, it seems appropriate to note the policy of expanding federal flex-fuel fleets.  Over the last several years, billions of dollars have been invested in alternative-fuel vehicles.  Unfortunately, the investment hasn’t exactly panned out, as the Washington Post reported in its November 23 edition.  It’s a great description of flex-fuel fleet policies and history, and a strong example of good policy implemented badly with no apparent considerations of infrastructure.  In short, purchasing flex-fuel cars across the country isn’t as effective when flex-fuel stations aren’t as widely available.

As this country moves forward with other alternative energy scenarios, the underlying infrastructure, whether we’re talking about fuel stations, electric grids, or some other support systems, will have to change before the new energy source can be successfully implemented.  Let’s remember the failures of the federal flex-fuel fleet.  The Post article suggests that the government approached this as a purchasing decision rather than as an investment decision.  Perhaps a tradeoff where fewer cars were purchased and the additional funds were used to invest in flex-fuel infrastructure could have helped avoid a situation where 92 percent of the fuel used in the flex-fuel fleet isn’t alternative fuel.

AAAS President and the Washington Post Muddy the Waters on Burrowing

November 25th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Saturday’s Washington Post has an article about the recent moves of several political appointees into senior civil service positions.  Called ‘burrowing,’ the process is not new to the current administration.  However, examples of personnel decisions in this administration that suggest ideology trumps competence have drawn extra attention to these moves.  A preliminary examination of these cases suggests that qualified federal civil servants may have been passed over for these positions, which is troubling.  However, the slant of the article, which focuses on science qualifications, does nobody any favors.  In the piece, AAAS President (and oceanographer) James McCarthy complains about the lack of scientific qualifications for people making resource decisions.

While the criticism has a point, it’s at best tangentially relevant.  Whether a person is the best qualified applicant to fill the job is a separate question from whether the job requires someone with a scientific background.  At a certain level in any large structure, management skills become more and more important, and unfortunately the article doesn’t spell out the positions in sufficient detail to know whether that applies in this case.  Similarly, it doesn’t make a good case, one way or the other, about the need for scientific credentials in these positions.  There’s also the pesky insistence within the argument that I find counterproductive – that any position involved with science demands a Ph.D. scientist to fill the position.


Consolidation of NOAA and USGS continued…

November 24th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A couple of weeks ago we posted a letter in response to a Policy Forum in Science Magazine proposing the consolidation of USGS and NOAA to create and Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA). Here is the promised response, written by Mark Schaeffer and D. James Baker:

14 Nov 08

We believe that Ryan Meyer, Lisa Dilling, Roger Pielke Jr, and Daniel Sarewitz have missed the point here when they focus solely on the “science push” in our article.  We all know that NOAA and USGS both have excellent research linked to user needs; hazards at USGS and drought at NOAA are two examples that they cite.  It’s our view that these and other excellent programs would thrive in a joint agency by being closer together. We’re not trying to drop these links – we’re trying to find ways to enhance them.

The point of our article was to express the views of those who have actually managed these agencies and who have seen how hard it is for these agencies to work together.  Sometimes maintaining existing organizational structures and trying to leverage the experience and resources of agency programs are not enough. Our experience would say that simply adding coordination mechanisms and improved decision support capacity to the existing organizational structure will never be as effective in meeting national needs as actual agency merger.

We, like Meyer et al., would like to get to an integrated model that links research and engagement so that research agendas are responsive to user needs. But the current arrangement artificially separates ocean and atmospheric sciences from terrestrial and freshwater sciences in two agencies in two different departments and makes such responsiveness harder to develop.  As we state in our article, we believe that addressing the unprecedented environmental and economic challenges the nation is facing requires that we realign our public institutional infrastructure.

In the end, the magnitude of the challenges we face demands that the federal government and states be much more innovative in developing and implementing policy responses to environmental and economic challenges at multiple scales.  The core mission of the proposed ESSA would be to align and integrate research and monitoring programs that are closely linked to users to meet this pressing need.  Our proposed organizational change with true program integration and major advancements in government-university collaboration is critical to meeting national needs.

We should not shy away from the pursuit of necessary change out of concern about budgetary and political uncertainties.  These uncertainties are minor in comparison to the benefits that would result from enhancing the nation’s environmental research and monitoring capacity.  We understand that President-elect Obama is considering a fast-track plan for government reorganization, and we are urging Congressional hearings on the ability of the government, through NOAA and USGS, to meet the new challenges.

By taking on this problem of responsiveness squarely, we can ensure that federal environmental programs are more comprehensive and integrated and more closely connected with the expertise in the nation’s universities, and that they maintain strong links with users in all sectors.  The challenge is to make this happen.  Agency merger is the best way, and we’d like to see the process started.  If it fails, the very fact of consideration will have helped us move on the path towards better responsiveness.

It would be interesting to continue this conversation along those lines – how can a new merged agency best operate to meet the needs that both we and Meyer et al. have identified, and if the merger fails, what processes can be put in place that can really make a difference?

Research and the Financial Crisis – Yet Another Hard Landing

November 24th, 2008

Posted by: admin

I’ve posted on the potential impacts of the worldwide economic slump on research before, but I find it worth revisiting in part because large swaths of those involved in research are not talking about it.  Hopefully this does not mean that they refuse to see the problem.  Some have taken the approach that its an opportunity to rehash old debates about insufficient research investment, but this seems particularly short-sighted.  I am disappointed to see the obsession with science policy as science budget policy has resolved into myopia over resources.  Longer-range thinking and planning seems a lot more necessary these days.  The end of the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget was botched from top to bottom, and I’m not persuaded anyone learned a thing.  In short, the biomedical research enterprise was on the leading edge of a different economic slowdown, and the response has been to turn up the volume on budget requests.  Nobody’s ready for drops in budget due to the current economic slowdown.

Nature appears to recognize the problem, and has a collection of articles and editorials (subscription required for most items) about various aspects of research and the current financial crisis.  I would start with the Special Report (no subscription for this one) from the 13 November issue.  It’s a thoughtful treatment of the various challenges this crisis presents, and a more realistic description of the chances researchers have to turn those challenges into opportunities.  It addresses the interaction of industry research (and research support) with the rest of the ecosystem.  But more careful thought and planning, like that hinted at in the Nature pieces, can’t start soon enough.  Some issues that will need extra attention over the next several years:


Assessing Environmental Risk in Minnesota

November 23rd, 2008

Posted by: admin

This has nothing to do with the Senate race currently in a recount, but everything to do with a December 3 workshop hosted by the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.  Titled Assessing, Managing and Communicating Environmental Risk: A Call to Action, the conference involves legislators, journalists, advocates and researchers from Minnesota involved with environmental and public health.  The conference registration fee is modest, and the agenda and other information are available online.

Pielke and Green on Obama’s Climate Policy

November 22nd, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In today’s Rocky Mountain News Chris Green and I have an op-ed on Obama’s climate policy plans. It starts as follows:

With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, debates over climate policy are going to get a much needed boost. The Obama plan for climate policy includes one very good idea – investment in new technologies and infrastructure – and one very bad one: cap-and-trade.

To understand why cap-and-trade is such a bad idea, we need only look to lessons from Europe’s experiences.

Please read the whole thing here. We welcome your comments.