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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Scientist reports on a recent decision by Research Councils UK that grant applicants must submit an impact summary, describing the broader impacts of their research. While this bears a strong resemblance to the National Science Foundation’s broader impact criteria in their grant requirements, I cannot find the specific text of the UK summary to make the direct comparison. As a result, if there is an economic angle to the impact summary, I can see the criticism raised in The Scientist piece about the difficulty of predicting economic impacts of research. However, I think any measure encouraging researchers to think of what happens (or could happen) with their work should be encouraged.