Public Science Agenda, Revisited - July 2001
By Carolyn Raffensperger
Ideas are always contextual. This newsletter is no different. I just came back from the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics where economists were grappling with the failure of the current economic system and theory to account for or modulate the devastating connection between our economic life and our ecological life. There were a number of discussions that suggested that USEE should be a crisis organization and deal directly with the anti-ecological bent of economics. What, they asked, is our research agenda? What should ecological economic graduate schools be doing?
As I traveled between my home and Duluth, the site for the USEE meeting, I listened to several newscasts and talk radio programs about the federal debate about stem cell research. Should federal dollars be spent on embryonic stem cell research? I kept wondering why we weren't asking the same questions about all of our publicly funded research. On what do we want to spend our research effort and money? Do we just want to respond to whatever scientists propose and say they can or can't do it? Wouldn't it be wiser to set a positive research agenda on the kinds of problems that are best suited to public research?
Research can make a huge difference in policy and environmental quality. I recently wrote an article about the removal of dams in the Midwest. Wisconsin has been exceptionally aggressive in removing old dams, taking down 8-12 a year and allowing the riverine environment to restore itself. Why? A University of Wisconsin study done some years ago demonstrated that removing a dam cost about $200,000 but repairing one cost about $1 million. The science was persuasive.
We have few engineering schools with large solar or wind departments. Now that we are facing an energy "crisis" we don't have many places to turn for innovative technologies that could replace fossil fuels. It's time to set a proactive environmental agenda that helps society meet its needs without destroying the natural world on which we all depend.
In a past issue (Volume_6-2.html) we reported on what some of our colleagues thought key research questions might be. In this issue we report on reader responses to those questions and another group's analysis of sustainability research questions.
One controversy a number of readers picked up on in that earlier issue of the Networker is, how dead is the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, and when did it die? Several noted that the assertion by one of our "big thinkers" that the OTA died in the 1980s was wrong. The OTA closed its doors in September 1995, as a result of budget cuts initiated in 1994. Wil Lepkowski, in the article we've reprinted from the Center for Science, Policy, & Outcomes, describes one effort to resuscitate the OTA.
As always we are grateful for your responses and welcome your comments.
Science, April 27, 2001
A Science magazine article with 23 co-authors (vol 292, 27 April, 2001, pp. 641-2) lists seven core questions of sustainability science. They contain some germs of a public science agenda, and they are the kind of big questions SEHN hopes to elicit in this continuing discussion.
Robert Kates, listed as principal author of the article, read our February issue and wrote us this note:
Over the past year, some big thinkers (besides yours) have been struggling to develop an across-science initiative on sustainability science.
Please check out our web site at www.sustainabilityscience.org and you might want to share it with your readers as a way of our answering the general but not the specify questions you raised.
(For more reader responses, see below.)
Here are the seven questions Kates' group came up with:
- How can the dynamic interactions between nature and society--including lags and inertia - be better incorporated into emerging models and conceptualizations that integrate the Earth system, human development, and sustainability?
- How are long-term trends in environment and development, including consumption and population, reshaping nature-society interactions in ways relevant to sustainability?
- What determines the vulnerability or resilience of the nature-society system in particular kinds of places and for particular types of ecosystems and human livelihoods?
- Can scientifically meaningful limits or boundaries be defined that would provide effective warning of conditions beyond which the nature-society systems incur a significantly increased risk of serious degradation?
- What systems of incentive structures--including markets, rules, norms, and scientific information--can most effectively improve social capacity to guide interactions between nature and society toward more sustainable trajectories?
- How can today's operational systems for monitoring and reporting on environmental and social conditions be integrated or extended to provide more useful guidance for efforts to navigate a transition toward sustainability?
- How can today's relatively independent activities of research planning, monitoring, assessment, and decision support be better integrated into systems for adaptive management and societal learning?
Supplementary material on these questions is also available on Science Online at www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/292/5517/641/DC1
By Wil Lepkowski
Are signs of life beginning to stir in Congress's pet mummy known as the Office of Technology Assessment? Maybe yes, maybe no. Basically the whole process of transforming the embalmed body into a muscle-flexing torso rests on whether Democrats who control the Senate are willing to work toward appropriating the money to establish at least a pilot effort to assess the impact of technologies on human lives and institutions. The Senate would then, in conference after House and Senate appropriations bills are passed, work out with the House a deal by which OTA would be reestablished.
Congress ended OTA's life in 1994 when the Republicans in control refused to appropriate any more funding for the agency whose original purpose was to provide counsel on the social implications of complex technologies. But they never outright killed OTA by terminating the authorizing law. They simply mummified OTA by denying funding.
Granger Morgan, a Carnegie Mellon University engineer active as an OTA consultant in the old days, arranged an ambitious June 14 workshop to explore various new manifestations of a scientific and technological advisory function for Congress. About 200 turned out for the meeting, a crowd largely seasoned by years of performing policy studies around various technological issues. Morgan wanted to get a discussion and dialogue going, and he did. His labors partly led to the actual introduction the day before of a House bill co-sponsored by Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Amo Houghton (R-NY) to authorize $20 million of funding for the agency. The bill was referred to the House Science Committee, chaired by Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), which at the moment plans no hearings. Until OTA emerges as an appropriations item, it will have no hope of revival.
Members of Congress who attended the workshop were sympathetic to a new OTA, or something like it, but not very willing to try to generate enthusiasm for it among their colleagues. They repeated the complaint frequently heard about OTA's chronic deficiency--reports that took too long to produce.
Morgan commissioned three thoughtful "framing papers" to provide fuller context for his workshop. The first gave a historical perspective on OTA and its relevance to Congressional decision making processes. A second, by CSPO's David Guston (http://www.cspo.org/products/articles/TAworkshoppaper.pdf), was on what the working life of OTA was like, how it constantly had to redefine its procedures, and what sorts of public participation mechanisms any new OTA might try. The third reviewed various European approaches to technology assessment today. The discussion, however, focused mainly on scientific advice to Congress, not so much on the public-spirited technology assessment that was central to OTA's original conception.
Morgan also assigned individuals to explore five different models of scientific and engineering advice for Congress. The first was to establish a very small agency in Congress that would contract out studies to various thinks tanks and universities. The second was to establish technology assessment, or scientific advisory units, within three of the already existing advisory agencies for Congress--the General Accounting Office, Congressional Budget Office, and the Congressional Research Service. Model three would be a return to the old OTA structure, except for tweaking its work to fit better with immediate congressional needs. Number four was greater use by Congress of the National Academies consulting arm, the National Research Council, already extensively called upon by Congress to do advisory work on S&T issues. Finally, model five would make use of non-governmental organizations that would work exclusively for Congress.
Vary Coates, who established an "Institute for Technology Assessment" that did some studies after OTA died, and who herself tried to spearhead a restoration effort, said she felt a bit dispirited by the proceedings because members of Congress at the breakfast expressed little interest in the kinds of studies OTA was meant to do: deep looks into the societal implications of new technologies.
"They really didn't talk much about technology assessment. What they did talk about was ways to give Congress advice on scientific issues, Coates said. Maybe we ought to start over again by giving Congress what it wants and meanwhile build up again to the basic vision."
Sadly missing from the meeting was the spirit of George Brown, who had served on the OTA board during the entire 22 years of its life and died two years ago. Brown was always pressing the scientific and engineering communities to spend more time thinking about and working on the human dimensions of what they discover and produce.
Skip Stiles, who was a senior staffer for Brown for many years, said, "The truth of the matter is that if Congress understood science better they'd ask better questions of scientists. I don't know if the scientific community is prepared for that. Instead of one big George Brown you might have ten or fifteen little George Browns saying, 'Wait a minute. Have you thought about the consequences of this?'"
Roger Herdman, OTA's last director, says the Internet could profoundly affect the process of assessment. "The Internet was just beginning when OTA stopped. It's astounding to think of what a new OTA could do in terms of information, productivity, and interactivity."
In any case, Morgan plans to press forward with the restoration. He isn't precise about the next steps, if any, beyond stepping up the dialogue with Congress. But a book of proceedings is being planned.
John H. Gibbons, the longest-term and most successful of OTA's four directors and later Bill Clinton's science adviser, recited a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which he has quoted frequently over the years. Thanks to Gibbons, the sonnet has become the theme song for the technology assessment movement:
Upon this age that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts...they lie unquestioned, uncombined
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.
(from a collection of sonnets Millay published in 1939 entitled, "Huntsman, What Quarry?")
This is abridged from the Center for Science, Policy, & Outcomes's Science and Policy Perspectives Update Number 6, posted June 25, 2001, on the centers' website at http://www.cspo.org/s&pp/062501.html. Reprinted by permission.
By Networker Readers
Linda-Jo Schierow - I have to press my view that the most important scientific endeavor for the federal government is to gather and make available to everyone who wants it (in a usable form ) basic data on the status quo, over time, in a systematic way. Whether data result from monitoring concentrations of atmospheric gases, pesticides in surface water, prevalence of various diseases, or the greatest fears of individuals in various cultures, public funding should concentrate on the least "sexy," most basic and boring activity: the long-term, systematic collection of data on potential indicators of environmental quality, human health, ecosystem integrity, or mental health. Creative individuals would find at their disposal all the data they require to explore various hypotheses.
Industry will not monitor, because it does not profit them to do so. University professors and students will not monitor, because monitoring is not "research," and students come and go. No one has an incentive to collect basic data, but there is no more valuable endeavor in the public interest - permitting program evaluation, citizen participation, hypothesis testing, trend assessment, and every other type of meaningful "big picture" research.
The views expressed in this message are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of the Congressional Research Service.
Jay Seavey - Re: Question No. 3 (What are the most significant problems, challenges, or opportunities to which publicly funded research should be directed in the next 20 years? Within these areas, what are likely to be the most important and productive questions for research?)
I searched your document for references to "fluoride" and to "water fluoridation", and found none. I sincerely hope that public scientific research in the next twenty years tackles fluoride research (which has been largely off limits for the past fifty years in the US, and which has gotten prominent researchers fired for their findings as recently as six years ago) and unravels fifty years worth of "safe and effective" propaganda from the American Dental Association, and egregiously bad policy from the US Public Health Service, which is absolutely lacking in a sound scientific basis.
The history of water fluoridation is not unlike the history of leaded gasoline, which was sold for over 50 years in the US even though the manufacturers KNEW back in the 1920's that it was both poisonous and unnecessary for boosting gasoline octane. Fluoride, pound for pound, has a toxicity level between that of arsenic and lead; and we've all been brainwashed into thinking it's good for smiley teeth. In fact, fluoride is a brainwashing agent. During WWII, we shipped a lot of it to the Soviets under the Lend-Lease program, which they used in the gulags; seems it keeps the prisoners subdued and docile. The union at EPA headquarters in Washington which represents the professional employees (scientists, engineers, lawyers, etc) has taken a public stance against water fluoridation. You folks should get it on your agenda. It needs broader exposure and consideration within the environmental community. The stuff they are putting in our drinking water, is, in fact, a toxic hazardous waste generated by the phosphate fertilizer industry. Water fluoridation is the biggest scientific scam of the past century. It's time to set the record straight, and tell the public the truth.
Elisa Graffy - The discussion of publicly funded science that appeared in the February 2001 issue of the Networker is close to my heart. After working at the Office of Technology Assessment (until it was killed in September 1995, not the 1980's, by the way), I took on the new role of policy advisor to the premiere Federal science program working on water quality issues nationwide -- USGS's National Water Quality Assessment Program. This was a strong statement about the commitment of these scientists to enhance their public role. Specifically, they have a goal of connecting their science to policy and problem-solving at many levels. (We actually do very little with regard to public lands management . This is a common misconception that derives from the fact that we and BLM share the same department. We are, however, quite separate in our missions.)
Though not all of our contributions take the form of publications, reports are still an important communication vehicle for a technical program. I'd be really interested in the views of you and others connected to SEHN regarding our most interpretive publications -- i.e., the ones that go the furthest toward translating science findings into a framework that makes sense to a broad spectrum of folks interested in water, human health, ecology, etc. The easiest way to see them is on the web, though they are available for free in paper form on request. On the NAWQA home page http://sd.water.usgs.gov/nawqa click on "summary reports."
Please let me know what you think of the reports in terms of serving the mission of publicly funded science.
Looking forward to your feedback,
Policy Adviser USGS-National Water-Quality Assessment Program
(608) 821-3836 (v) (608) 821-3817 (fax)
Frank Emspak - I want to thank you for continuing to send out the Networker. I almost always find it useful-this issue about future science and research policy especially so. I try to find ways to inject the concerns into our research on so-called high performance manufacturing (which indeed, does not perform highly for most of the workers) and into my classes in general.
Gordon Durnil - Are we looking for "public" science or "neutral" science? Most people (most decision makers) think all science is neutral (except maybe the science promoted by environmental organizations). Some of the best luck I have with my peers is the discussion about neutral science and questioning whether such a thing exists. I spend a lot of time in my second book on that topic.
Jeff Scheuer - I found the public science Networker very interesting, particularly your definition of complexity, which is very close to the one I arrive at in Ch. 4 of my book, The Sound Bite Society.
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