Archive for January, 2009

Office of Technology Assessment Archive Available Online

January 31st, 2009

Posted by: admin

This isn’t new, but it is new to me.  The Federation of American Scientists has been hosting reports and other scholarship on the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) online (H/T Science Cheerleader).  They’ve been at it for almost a year, if the archive’s blog is any indication.  Those who aren’t familiar with the OTA, it was a Congressional organization that conducted technology assessment for Congress.  It ran from the early 1970s until the mid 1990s, when it was a casualty of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolution.  That Mr. Gingrich fancies himself a champion of science and technology is sufficient to trigger the sense of irony for many people.  Peruse the archive at your leisure, along with the other work of the Federation (for instance, they are frequently a good source for Congressional Research Service reports).

French Scientists Will Strike Next Week

January 30th, 2009

Posted by: admin

ScienceInsider has all the gritty details, but there are a series of policy changes on the books in France that have its country’s scientists set to strike next week.  In short, France is trying to shift its state-controlled research system to a more traditional Western model.  What strikes me as particularly odd, and perhaps uniquely French, is the tone taken by both sides (or their representatives) in this debate.  The ScienceInsider piece has English translations of the argument (and if accurate, that seems the best word for it), but those that can parlez francais should read the speech by French President Sarkozy and the response from the scientists’ groups to get a better sense of the nuances involved.

I just have a hard time seeing how a dispute of this tenor could happen anywhere else.  Maybe it’s because I’ve spent my graduate education as a non-resident and haven’t been directly exposed to American academic squabbles.  Of course, it’s also a bit of a struggle for me to get my mind around a researchers’ union (not in the sense of it being a good or bad idea, but simply in its existence).  But the equivalent of shouting matches via public statement?  I have a hard time seeing anyone from the Union of Concerned Scientists or Research!America or any other science advocacy organization doing something like this in the United States, their obvious frustration with American research aside.


Changes in the House Science and Technology Committee

January 29th, 2009

Posted by: admin

This past week the House Science and Technology Committee formally organized, setting subcommittee assignments and committee leadership.  Bart Gordon (D-TN) remains chair, and Ralph Hall (R-TX) remains ranking member.  Over 10 members are new to the committee for this Congress.  The five subcommittees remain as they did for the 110th Congress, with the following members leading them for the 111th.  Specific leadership assignments after the jump.


Climate Science Infallibility Syndrome

January 29th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

When fighting political battles through science, scientists are at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike politicians and political advocates who can cherry pick and even change their arguments and justifications as they see fit (since that is what they are expected to), scientists’ claim to authority rests on the assertion that they have access to the truth. So they often enter political arenas explaining that their views are more true than their opponents, and thus on this basis their political agenda deserves to win out. The more strident the scientists appear in political debates the more compelling their grasp of truth appears to be. By contrast, changing one’s views or even acknowledging uncertainty, even if fundamental to how science progresses, is not an asset for scientists in the political arena.

But science can be fickle. The notion of what is true evolves in science, as new studies come in and new data, theories, and techniques are developed and advanced. Further, science rarely speaks with one voice, which also is quite normal and fundamental to how science actually works. The very process of science with all of its messiness and shades of gray does not lend it well to political battles, where issues are typically defined in black and white terms.

In the latest installment of the climate wars, a tempest in a teapot has blown up over a recent paper in Nature, which illustrates the perils of playing politics through science. In this case the political battle is over climate change and between the skeptics and their self-appointed enemies. The skeptics have in the past seized upon normal uncertainties and contradictory results in climate science to advance a political agenda. In response, their self-appointed enemies have asserted a sort of infallibility, claiming that such contradictions in the science have never actually existed. As might be expected in political battle, according to their self-appointed enemies, the skeptics have always been wrong about the science (politics) and their self-appointed enemies have always been right about the science (politics). The reason for this view is that any admission of uncertainties or contradictions in the science of climate change by the self-appointed enemies of the skeptics might give some aid and comfort to those nefarious skeptics with evil political agendas.

This long, boring, and detailed post tells the story of how the scientists at Real Climate over-reached in this political skirmish on the issue of cooling and then warming in Antarctica. But as is often said, it was not the overreach that was the problem as a mild corrective would have rendered it but a footnote. Instead it was the overreaction to the overreach that has damaged their credibility. Still as I write this, the battle continues to escalate. Let this story be a lesson in the perils of climate science infallibility syndrome.


Apparently Markets Allow Buying and Selling

January 29th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Some folks are surprised to learn that market mechanisms for carbon trading allow both the buying and selling of emissions permits. Clearly this sort of capitalistic behavior must be stopped if carbon markets are to work. The Guardian has the details:

Britain’s biggest polluting companies are abusing a European emissions trading scheme (ETS) designed to tackle global warming by cashing in their carbon credits in order to bolster ailing balance sheets.

The sell-off has helped trigger a collapse in the price of carbon, making it cheaper to burn high-carbon fossil fuels and leading to a fall in the number of clean energy projects. The moves were seized on by environmentalists and other critics who have previously criticised the European Union’s ETS for delivering more windfall profits for business than climate change.

“This [ETS] was not designed as a scheme to give corporates cheap short-term funding options in the face of a credit crunch meltdown where banks are not lending, but that appears to be what’s happening,” said Mark Lewis, a carbon analyst at Deutsche Bank.

Steel, concrete and glassmakers are believed to be the main sellers along with financial speculators such as hedge funds. The sell-off of the pollution permits has led to carbon prices plunging 60% – from over €30 to around €12 per tonne.

The EU’s emissions trading scheme was set up as a market solution to cut greenhouse gas pollution from industry. Polluters were issued with permits that can be traded between companies and countries as a way of encouraging an overall reduction in carbon output. However, companies are now cashing them in for their own financial benefit.

Up to €1bn-worth of carbon emissions permits are said to have been sold off in recent months as industrial companies see an opportunity to bring in funds at a time when their carbon output is expected to fall due to lower production.

Environmentalists expressed anger last night about the way the ETS was being used. “The ETS has bowed to corporate self-interest at every stage of its design and implementation, so there is no surprise that it is now being used as a cash cow to see firms through a difficult financial phase,” said Oscar Reyes, a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch.

Point Carbon, an information provider and consultancy, claims the sell-offs are only one of a number of factors that are influencing prices and argues it is “rational” for companies to be selling off credits at this time.

What is Science’s Rightful Place?

January 28th, 2009

Posted by: admin

ScienceBlogs wants to answer the above question in light of the following phrase from the President’s inaugural address:

“We will restore science to its rightful place”

Never mind that the phrasing suggests this rightful place existed at some time in the past, the folks at Scienceblogs and SEED Magazine are soliciting contributions of what is the rightful place for science.  Watch the wishful thinking take flight.

New Paper on the Economics of Air Capture

January 28th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I have a paper in press on the economics of the air capture of carbon dioxide. Here are the details:

Pielke, Jr. R. A. 2009 (in press). An Idealized Assessment of the Economics of Air Capture of Carbon Dioxide in Mitigation Policy, Environmental Science & Policy.


This paper discusses the technology of direct capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere called air capture. It develops a simple arithmetic description of the magnitude of the challenge of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide as a cumulative allocation over the 21st century. This approach, consistent with and based on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sets the stage for an analysis of the average costs of air capture over the 21st century under the assumption that technologies available today are used to fully offset net human emissions of carbon dioxide. The simple assessment finds that even at a relatively high cost per ton of carbon, the costs of air capture are directly comparable to the costs of stabilization using other means as presented by recent reports of the IPCC and the Stern Review Report.

For a pre-publication copy when proofs arrive (I expect them next week) please contact

Mooney Talks Past Marburger II: Science Policy Boogaloo

January 27th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Today I’ll get into some issues in Mooney’s hatchet job where he and Marburger talk past each other.  All quotations not otherwise attributed are from Mooney.

I’d like to indulge in one final Bush-era diatribe against the longest-ever serving White House science adviser: John Marburger, who has been a poor advocate indeed for the science world.

Since when is the president’s science adviser a science advocate?  Let’s look at the underlying law dictating how the Office of Science and Technology Policy should operate (Public Law 94-282).  Some relevant text:

The Act authorizes OSTP to:

  • Advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs;
  • Lead an interagency effort to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets;
  • Work with the private sector to ensure Federal investments in science and technology contribute to economic prosperity, environmental quality, and national security;
  • Build strong partnerships among Federal, State, and local governments, other countries, and the scientific community;
  • Evaluate the scale, quality, and effectiveness of the Federal effort in science and technology.

There’s a lot of wiggle room here. But what isn’t here is some dictum that scientific outcomes advanced by OSTP dictate policy outcomes.  This path is a small reach from the encouragement of open inquiry and publication without censorship.  Many people can’t resist the urge to reach.


Reversing the Irrevsible

January 26th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Susan Solomon and colleagues have a new paper out in PNAS that says that some climate change effects irreversible, and the higher that carbon dioxide levels get the greater the change. You can read the press release from NOAA here.

Now if climate change is indeed irreversible, and its effects are to be avoided, then one would think that an appropriate response would be, in addition to advocating for stabilizing emissions and enhancing adaptation, to emphasize how important it is to develop low-cost technology to directly remove carbon dioxide from the air — to make the irreversible reversible so to speak.

Here is what the NOAA press release says on that subject:

Geoengineering to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere was not considered in the study. “Ideas about taking the carbon dioxide away after the world puts it in have been proposed, but right now those are very speculative,” said Solomon.

If Solomon et al. are correct about the irreversibility of climate change, and I have no reason to doubt them, then the technology of air capture becomes even more compelling and necessary. Yet, remarkably, the politics of climate make the subject still taboo for most people, save a few brave souls like Jim Hansen and Wally Broecker. As emissions continue to climb we will no doubt be hearing more about air capture, and people will wonder why it took so long.

Mooney Talks Past Marburger

January 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

I’ve never been a fan of the “War on Science” construct.  As developed and articulated, its main function has been to rouse people to political action.  To agitate and organize is not a bad thing, depending on how it is done.  The problem comes in that same development and articulation of the “War on Science,” which paints a picture that is far more aggressive, comprehensive, and subversive than facts on the ground can demonstrably prove.  In short, it’s effective politics, but fails to reflect reality or suggest effective policy solutions.  It makes for bad policy, trying to correct problems that aren’t there at the expense of those that are.  So if one party latches onto this idea (or one party is pilloried by the execution of that idea), the more likely outcome is a change in power rather than a substantive change in how science policy is handled.  The notion that any particular entity in power would not use (or ignore) scientific or technical knowledge to its political benefit (an underlying evil in this rhetoric), is laughable and unrealistic.  This helps explain why the rhetoric never caught on outside of science advocacy circles.  The concept will not lead to any substantive change in how science policy is done because the “War on Science” was never used in a way to support it.  It was negative – do not do what __________ did.  There was nothing suggested as a new thing to do, or a new way of doing business.  It was a corrective only, assuming that the status quo ante was good enough.  The inaugural language to “restore science to its rightful place” suggests as much.

I was glad to see the chief proponent of the “War on Science.” Chris Mooney, unilaterally declare it over in a Slate column.  This made my disappointment all the stronger when I read his hatchet job in Science Progress on former Presidential science adviser John Marburger’s exit interview in SEED magazine.