Recently in Science and public policy Category
As you have heard in the news, there has been an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico and the United States. There is a possibility that this situation might develop into a pandemic if the virus continues to spread around the globe. The news media report excessively about this threat, and while health officials urge people to stay calm, there is an increased level of anxiety in the population.
Models have predicted that when a disease breaks out, changes in behavior in response to an outbreak, and in particular in response to information about an outbreak, can alter the progression of an epidemic. While this makes intuitive sense, there is no good data to test such a hypothesis. One of the major problems is that emotional reactions and behavioral response to an epidemic is generally assessed quite some time after the epidemic has fizzled out.
We would like to address this problem by starting a survey about risk assessment and personal responses to a potential epidemic as it unfolds - that is, right now.
Please help us achieve this goal by filling out a simple questionnaire (link below) - it shouldn't take more than five minutes.
Here's the link. And as Carl says, it really doesn't take more than five minutes. Head on over and participate.
[T]here are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been.
At root, science forces us to reckon with the truth as best as we can ascertain it. Some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long held views. Science cannot answer every question; indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics, our values, our principles, or our faith, but science can inform those things, and help put these values, these moral sentiments, that faith, to work - to feed a child, to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this earth.
As the editors of Nature point out:
On the face of it, this sounds as though Congress was asking the NAS for specific policy choices -- a request that could lead the academy into dangerous territory. Although it has recommended specific policies in the past, the academy runs the risk of politicizing itself and weakening its standing should it advocate policies such as the stabilization of carbon dioxide at a particular atmospheric concentration, or the adoption of a US cap-and-trade programme. These are not scientific decisions: they depend on how much society is willing to spend on curbing CO2 emissions versus how much it is willing to live with the results -- a fundamentally political problem. (emphasis mine)I've made points like that a couple of times before.1 It's important that scientists distinguish between questions science can answer -- what are the consequences of particular policy choices? -- from those it can't -- which consequences are desirable and how much are they worth? Science should inform policy choices, but it cannot determine them.2
Although Congress has now passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the fiscal year (FY) 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, the process of securing funding for FY 2010 has started! Many science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), have recently received important new funding. It is now time to ensure that we do not lose ground in the coming budget and appropriations cycle.
A bipartisan effort has been launched in the United States House of Representatives to support the Administration's plans to provide $7.0 billion in funding to the NSF in FY 2010. A "Dear Colleague" letter is being circulated in the House at this time. Please consider writing your Representative and asking him/her to sign the Ehlers, Holt, Lipinski, Foster, and Inglis NSF Dear Colleague letter. If one of these members of Congress is your Representative, please thank them for their leadership.
You can quickly send a letter to your Representative through the AIBS Legislative Action Center. Please go to http://capwiz.com/aibs/home/ and click on "Support Increased Funding for the National Science Foundation" in the box labeled "Take Action Now". The Dear Colleague letter is scheduled to close on 26 March, so please write to your Representative today.
Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.It may seem obvious that "[p]olitical officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions," but after an administration in which Julie MacDonald served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Interior, in which Julie Gerberding had portions of her congressional testimony removed because they suggested a link between climate change and human health, and in which EPA removed Deborah Rice's comments on a report concerning risks posed by the fire retardant decabromobiphenyl ether (deca), it's nice to have it stated out loud in a presidential memo that "[p]olitical officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions."
The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.
From the text of President Obama's address at the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln's birth in Springfield, Illinois Thursday night:
Only a union could speed our expansion and connect our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, and so, even in the midst of civil war, he built one. He fueled new enterprises with a national currency, spurred innovation, and ignited America's imagination with a national academy of sciences, believing we must, as he put it, add "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery...of new and useful things." And on this day, that is also the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, let us renew that commitment to science and innovation once more.
John Tierney and Roger Pielke, Jr. think John Holdren was a bad choice for presidential science adviser.While that is clearly true of John Tierney, it is a misrepresentation of Pielke's views. The Pielke post I linked to was posted on 15 August 2008. Roger pointed out the error to me in a very polite e-mail, and he pointed out that Chris Mooney's original post now contains a correction apologizing for the error.
I'll try to remember to check the date stamps of posts from now on so that I don't make this mistake again.1
By the way, if you're interested in science and public policy and haven't read Pielke's, The Honest Broker, check it out of your library or buy a copy. I highly recommend it.
I mentioned (in a footnote) that John Tierney and Roger Pielke, Jr.think John Holdren was a bad choice for presidential science adviser. Tierney's and Pielke's concerns focus on "his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions" (Tierney) and his belief that "science compels political outcomes" (Pielke). I haven't followed Holdren's career closely,1 but Chris Mooney's quote from an interview sounds like what I'd expect him to say:
I don't think there are very many scientists naive enough to think that science should always determine outcomes, but you shouldn't defend outcomes by distorting the science.A key piece of evidence Tierney's and Pielke's complaint is an op-ed that Holdren wrote for the Boston Globe last summer. The conflation that concerns them is evident in the last paragraph:
The extent of unfounded skepticism about the disruption of global climate by human-produced greenhouse gases is not just regrettable, it is dangerous. It has delayed - and continues to delay - the development of the political consensus that will be needed if society is to embrace remedies commensurate with the challenge. The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going. Those who still think this is all a mistake or a hoax need to think again.But is that really inconsistent with his response to Chris Mooney's question? I don't think so.
- "Kvamme says he's 'surprised' that Obama has named two outside co-chairs, both of whom have spent their careers in the life sciences." He thinks PCASTs focus more on technology than on science was a no-brainer. It was, in his view, tailored to support the Bush administration's interest in technology as an engine for economic development. Obama's appointment of two academic life scientists as co-chairs of PCAST (Harold Varmus and Eric Lander) suggests that he sees life sciences, especially health and environmental sciences,1 as key issues for PCAST during his administration.
- Assuming that the Senate confirms John Holdren's appointment as science adviser, we knew on 20 December 2008 who the co-chairs of PCAST were going to be -- a month before the inauguration. Kvamme was not appointed until March 2001 two months after Bush's inauguration, and Marburger wasn't appointed until the 20th of June, five months after Bush was inaugurated. Obama has "surrounded himself with serious scholars of some of the most critical issues of our times"(New York Times), and he's done so even before he takes office. As I wrote last February,
How candidates deal with issues where science is deeply involved tells us a lot about how they use evidence, how they evaluate expertise, and how they reach decisions, all critical features for a leader who cannot possibly know all of the technical details about any policy (s)he adopts.Obama's choice of science advisers suggests that he will pay attention to evidence, test the advice he receives against evidence and the advice of other experts, and choose the course of action most consistent with all available evidence (link).