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February 07, 2008

Science Debate 2008: an incoherent idea at best

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.”

I won’t go into the various arguments for and against this idea, but I think it’s worth contrasting the title of this effort -- “Science Debate 2008” – with what is actually being proposed in the above quotation. The issues listed span a political and cultural landscape of which science occupies only a very small piece. On the other hand, there are far more issues in which science plays a part (e.g. space, transportation, agriculture, …) that somehow did not make the cut. Why these issues in this particular debate? What is the goal of holding this debate?

Despite the title of this movement, what is advocated here is not a “science debate,” and as Goldston pointed out in Nature, applying such a name to it potentially does a great disservice to whatever discourse might emerge. One need only look at Kennedy’s suggested questions in Science to see why this is true. Some of these questions are about politics and values, others are about budgetary aspects of science policy, and still others are about criteria of scientific merit. While a sitting president could take a position on any of these example questions, few of them are high profile enough to reach that status.

Others are misleadingly framed to begin with. For example, no single person or entity determines the balance between “major-program project research and investigator-initiated basic research grants” and it is doubtful that it would be possible (let alone desirable) to alter this reality. (And I’ll leave aside the question of whether anyone at all in the general public would find this question interesting.)

It seems that the agenda of this movement is to raise the profile of a very specific set of issues. Why these issues should represented as inherently “scientific” is mystery to me. What should be clarified is the reasoning behind selecting these issues, and the overall goals of the proposed debate. Maybe then the supporters could make some progress in dealing with the issues raised by Goldston and others, and perhaps even make headway toward a truly useful event.

March 27, 2007

Pay No Attention to Those Earmarks

According to a column in the Wall Street Journal Congress, in its wisdom, has decided to prohibit the ability of its Congressional Research Service (CRS) to publish reports documenting congressional earmarks, or targeted spending inserted in appropriations bills (aka "pork-barrel spending"). This is a bad decision.

The thinking in Congress must be that if they don't report the existence of earmarks then no one will know what is going on. As has been documented time and again here we see an effort to shape political outcomes by manipulating the availability of information. In this case the incentives are not partisan, but institutional, as members of both political parties in Congress have a shared incentive to keep earmarks out of the public eye. Earmarks are often associated with irresponsible public spending (e.g., the Alaska "bridge to nowhere") and are especially problematic in the R&D enterprise, as I've discussed here previously.

Congress is doing the public a disservice by seeking to aggressively limit information on spending that it makes available to the public. This behavior is likely to be counterproductive when at the same time several Congress committees are conducting useful investigations of the Executive branch's heavy-handed information management strategies. In general, openness and transparency are good principles, and that is the case here as well.

Here is an excerpt from the WSJ column:

Nothing highlighted Congress's spending problem in last year's election more than earmarks, the special projects like Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" that members drop into last-minute conference reports leaving no opportunity to debate or amend them. Voters opted for change in Congress, but on earmarks it looks as if they'll only be getting more smoke and mirrors.

Democrats promised reform and instituted "a moratorium" on all earmarks until the system was cleaned up. Now the appropriations committees are privately accepting pork-barrel requests again. But curiously, the scorekeeper on earmarks, the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service (CRS)--a publicly funded, nonpartisan federal agency--has suddenly announced it will no longer respond to requests from members of Congress on the size, number or background of earmarks. "They claim it'll be transparent, but they're taking away the very data that lets us know what's really happening," says Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. "I'm convinced the appropriations committees are flexing their muscles with CRS."

Indeed, the shift in CRS policy represents a dramatic break with its 12-year practice of supplying members with earmark data. "CRS will no longer identify earmarks for individual programs, activities, entities, or individuals," stated a private Feb. 22 directive from CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan.

When Sen. Coburn and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina submitted earmark inquiries recently, they were both turned down. Each then had heated conversations with Mr. Mulhollan. The director, who declined to be interviewed for this article, explained that because the appropriations committees and the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) were now preparing their own lists of earmarks, CRS should no longer play a role in the process. He also noted that both the House and Senate are preparing their own definitions of earmarks. "It is not appropriate for us to continue our research," his directive states.

That is sophistry. The House rule making earmarks public, which was passed in January, doesn't apply to earmarks for fiscal year 2007, the year Mr. Coburn wanted his report on. There is no Senate rule, and a proposed statute defining earmarks hasn't become law. OMB's list of earmarks applies only to fiscal year 2005.

And in any case, CRS works for Congress, so it is bizarre for it to claim work being done by the executive branch as a reason to deny members information it was happy to collect and release in the past. When I asked a CRS official if the new policy stemmed from complaints by appropriations committee members, she refused to answer the question, citing "confidentiality" concerns. . .

Today squeeze plays on CRS are not uncommon, and they have come from both parties. In the 1990s, GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey was so angry with a CRS report questioning the workability of a flat tax that he temporarily zeroed out the agency's budget. Rep. Henry Waxman, as a member of a Democratic minority, demanded and got revisions to CRS reports on how prescription drug pricing rules in his bills would work. "Everyone expects Waxman and others to be even more insistent on getting what they want now [that he's in the majority]," says another CRS staffer.

March 26, 2007

Whose political agenda is reflected in the IPCC Working Group 1, Scientists or Politicians?

Recent discussion here on Prometheus and elsewhere has indicated two very different perspectives on who controls the IPCC’s Working Group I on the science of climate change. The different views reflect various efforts to legitimize and delegitimize the IPCC. However, the different perspectives cannot be reconciled for reasons I describe below, placing scientists in an interesting double bind.

The first view is that the IPCC is subject to governmental control at the start and at the finish, and thus is an overtly political document. It is after all the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. From this perspective the IPCC is very much a political document with political officials setting its agenda in the form of of the questions that it is to address and political officials also acting as gatekeepers on the resulting scientific report.

This view on the back end was expressed by Michael Mann, of Penn State University and RealClimate, who commented in New Scientist earlier this month:

Allowing governmental delegations to ride into town at the last minute and water down conclusions after they were painstakingly arrived at in an objective scientific assessment does not serve society well.

On the front end of the report, Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M, suggested that this too was controlled by politicians and not scientists, writing in the comments on another Prometheus post:

. . . you have to conclude that the [IPCC chapter] outline represents the questions member gov'ts want to know in order to respond to climate change.

The second view is that the IPCC is squarely in the control of the scientific community with governmental officials having a right to approve the IPCC report on the front and back ends but with no authority to alter it’s substance in any way for political purposes. Twenty distinguished climate scientists who participated in drafting of the recent IPCC Summary for Policymakers wrote a letter objecting vehemently to an article in the New Scientist suggesting that political officials had any influence whatsoever on the report.

At all stages, including at the final plenary in Paris, the authors had control over the text . . In particular, our co-chair Susan Solomon is robustly independent and has been determined to maintain the credibility of the science throughout the four-year process. . . The wide participation of the scientific community, the scientific accuracy and the absence of any policy prescription in this report are the characteristics that render this report so powerful. . . Another related misconception, promulgated by [New Scientist], is that the Summary for Policymakers was written by and for the government delegations, and changes were made to the scientific conclusions before and during the Paris plenary for political purposes. In fact, the Summary for Policymakers was written by the scientists who also wrote the underlying chapters. The purpose of the Paris plenary was to make clarifications in order to more succinctly and accessibly communicate the science to the policy-makers. The scientists were present in Paris to ensure scientific accuracy and consistency with the underlying report. Those of us also involved in previous assessments were pleasantly surprised that there were far fewer alterations made to the text at this final meeting, and that there were very few attempts at political interference.

So here is the double bind that scientists find themselves in: Some scientists, like Andrew Dessler (cited above), wish to assert that the IPCC is essentially value-free reflecting the revealed truths of the climate system as discerned by objective climate scientists with no political agenda. From this perspective, the only political agenda that the IPCC reflects is that imposed upon it by governments on the front end in the form of questions that they would like to see answered. It is otherwise scientifically pure. Other scientists, like Michael Mann (cited above), hold a very different view seeing the IPCC as reflecting a political agenda of member governments who have in fact corrupted the objective views of the climate scientists. From this perspective, the IPCC does in fact reflect a political agenda that shaped it on the back end.

If governmental representatives in fact have no influence on content of the IPCC only an ability to approve, as suggested by the twenty authors of the letter to the New Scientist, then all decisions made by the IPCC about what information to present in the report reflect the values and judgments of the scientists participating. Many scientists do not like this assertion because it suggests that the IPCC is not accountable to anyone, and stands as a technocratic exercise far from any sort of democratic governance of science. If instead governmental officials do in fact have influence, then the IPCC has some greater accountability and perhaps meets some criteria of democratic governance, but at the same time many scientists do not like this assertion because then the IPCC risks losing its legitimacy as its conclusions would then reflect the political agendas of its overseers. So does the IPCC Working Group I reflect a political agenda or not?

The only way that this double bind could be broken would be for the IPCC to do two things. First, on its front end it would need to have a formal, transparent, and systematic process for eliciting the demands for information from policy makers in the forms of questions asked and information sought. (Dan Sarewitz and I describe such a process in this paper: PDF.) There was in fact no such process on the front end.

Second, on the back end the IPCC would need an accepted process that allowed member governments to ask questions seeking to clarify and focus the report, opposed to changing its content. The IPCC authors suggest that this is in fact what happened, but its critics assert the opposite. So whatever the reality, it seems clear that the following statement from the twenty IPCC letter-writers holds up: "A legitimate criticism perhaps is the poor communication to the general public of IPCC procedures."

Everyone seems to agree that the IPCC reflects a political agenda, the question is who’s political agenda? Is it that of the participating scientists? Do participating scientists in fact have a "political agenda" or instead do they have many competing political agendas? Or is the political agenda of the IPCC that of the participating governments? But do participating governments in fact have a "political agenda" or many competing political agendas?

The answers to the questions are all unclear. The IPCC tries to have things both ways by asserting governmental participation without governmental influence. This makes no sense, and participation is meaningless absent influence. As a result, how people view the legitimacy of the IPCC will therefore most likely be an inkblot test on their views of governance by experts versus the democratization of knowledge. One thing seems clear, global governance of the IPCC would be much more straightforward, and its role far easier to understand, with some explicit answers to who controls the IPCC, scientists or governments?



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