On The Lack Of Imagination In Science Advocacy Rhetoric

Perhaps I’ve just been in this field too long.

Earlier this month several leading science policy administrators put their names to this article on The Huffington Post.  In the piece the authors use the 70th anniversary of Science: The Endless Frontier to argue for using a vision from 1945 to continue America’s status as a prime innovating nation.

The report in question was written by Vannevar Bush to argue for a dedicated source of federal funding for scientific research.  This National Research Foundation was not the same thing as the National Science Foundation that emerged.  So while the report was not entirely successful in crafting the agency Bush envisioned, it has managed to be successful in crowding out any other major rationale for federal investment in science and technology research.  The shorthand it represents is reified by these senior administrators in their article.  Both in citing Science: The Endless Frontier and by calling for the same things – more scientists, more investments and more policy champions – the authors do little more than say what could have been said by their predecessors 5, 10, 15 or more years ago.

I’d love to hear a new theme, something that’s younger than me.

Princeton Plasma Physicist Won’t Let Election Defeat Dissuade Him

Andrew Zwicker is the Head of Science Education at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories.  He ran in 2014 to take the Congressional seat vacated by Representative Rush Holt.  Holt stepped down following an unsuccessful Senate campaign and is now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Like Zwicker, Holt worked for years at the Princeton lab, and served as Assistant Director.

Zwicker did not win the Democratic Primary that year for the 12th Congressional district, but that has not quenched his political aspirations.  He did receive the Democratic nomination for one of the two General Assembly spots in this year’s election for New Jersey’s 16th Assembly district.  The general election is this fall.  While the 314 PAC did not endorse Zwicker in this race (it is focused on federal elections), they are spreading the word about his campaign.  Should he be successful in the fall, he may eventually follow in former Representative Holt’s footsteps and represent New Jersey in the House.

Unsolicited Advice To Canada – Follow A UK Model For Science Debates

Thanks to Twitter, I read this opinion piece in The Toronto Star advocating for science to be part of the leaders’ debates leading to the October 19 Parliamentary election.  Breaking from previous tradition, there will be not two debates (one in English, one in French), but at least six.  (One has already been held, and there are proposals for additional debates beyond the five currently scheduled.)

The authors would love to have a debate focused on science matters.  That’s understandable, especially given how science has fared under the current Canadian government’s efforts to tightly control the information it produces.  However, I think the compressed campaign schedule (though it is the longest Canadian campaign in history) will make it difficult to get either a debate exclusively on science questions or science questions into the debates that will be held.

That’s not to say it shouldn’t be tried.  But I would recommend not copying those of us on your southern border concerning science debates.  Rather I suggest you review our British cousins and adapt your strategy accordingly.  Two science questions were part of a UK leaders debate in the 2010 campaign (though it was the one conducted over YouTube and Facebook), but that same campaign saw three cross-party debates at the science ministerial level.  The science minister for the then-ruling Labour party debated shadow ministers from the two next largest parties (the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats).

I think it manageable to have the science minister and his shadow minister counterparts in the major Canadian parties debate each other.  In particular, MP Kennedy Stewart, shadow minister for science and technology of the National Democratic Party, may be strongly motivated to have such a debate, given his interest in establishing a Parliamentary science officer.  The bigger challenge may be getting something to happen during the current campaign.  Good luck!

Postscript – The parliamentary system underlying these minister-level debates is not present in the United States, so it’s a bit harder to identify an American equivalent.  For instance, I see little in it for the leaders and ranking members of the relevant Congressional committees to debate in an election year when they aren’t running against each other.  And given the stronger division between the executive and legislative branches in the U.S., such a debate wouldn’t cover what a President might do.  For that you might have to have candidates who could identify a Presidential science adviser early in their campaign – a rarity.

John H. “Jack” Gibbons, 1929-2015

Dr. John H. Gibbons, known as Jack, passed earlier this month following complications after a stroke.  He was 86, and like many who served years in science and technology policy, has received little attention on his passing.  Following a career in nuclear physics, energy and the environment, Gibbons served in lead science and technology policy positions for both Congress and the Executive branch.

Dr. Gibbons earned his Ph.D. in physics from Duke, following an undergraduate degree in mathematics and chemistry from Randolph-Macon College.  He started his career at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory working on nuclear geophysics and astrophysics, energy efficiency, environmental matters and ballistic missile defense.  He rose to direct the lab’s environmental program from 1969-1973.  Gibbons then served as the first head of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation programs.

In 1979 Gibbons was appointed head of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, an agency focused on providing scientific and technical advice to Congress.  He led the agency until 1992, and was nominated by then President-elect Clinton to be his science adviser.  He served in that position, and as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, until 1998.  After a short break Gibbons returned to government service as a Senior Adviser to the State Department from 1999-2001.  A major accomplishment of his tenure there was to grow the scientific and technical capacity of the Department, including the creation the office of Science Adviser to the Secretary of State.  Since leaving the State Department Gibbons had remained active in several scientific organizations and advisory groups.

Condolences to Dr. Gibbons family and colleagues.

A Horrible Idea Resurrected – Science Debate 2016

I’ll preface this by saying I still think the Presidential debates in the United States are shallow, vapid affairs that beat back the impulse to provide anything of substance.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the primaries or the general election, the outcomes of these events are judged far more on matters of performance and appearance than any substance or policies discussed.

Forget that the next Presidential election is more than 15 months away, the Sisyphean crew behind a candidate debate focused on science have already ramped up their noise machine.  They are likely to fail for a third consecutive Presidential election, so I  heartily suggest that nobody send them any money.  As I’ve argued before, it’s a waste of time.

The goal of Science Debate has always been presented as having the presidential candidates hold public debates on science and technology policy issues.  The best Science Debate has ever been able to do is be one of many organizations with a candidate questionnaire.  That’s a valuable thing to have, but it doesn’t represent a debate, or even an discussion about the issues.

Besides the questionnaire, the Science Debate organization has also conducted some polling to support their argument that the public is interested in such a debate.  But, based on the supporters highlighted on the Science Debate website, and the conversations of the key organizer, Shawn Otto, there are at least two distinct challenges facing this organization that seem to push it away from what it claims to want – public debate by candidates on science and technology issues.

There is an apparent fixation on media.  A perusal of the news section of the Science Debate website suggests that the strategy for putting pressure on the candidates to debate is to have scientists and Science Debate organizers make their case to the public.  It’s not at all clear what outreach has been done to the candidates, outside of some background in this recent TEDx talk by Shawn Otto.  In that same talk, Otto seems dismissive of approaching the commission that organizes the debates for the general election, and doesn’t mention approaching the political parties, only the campaigns.  I suggest that avoiding those debates with the fewest candidates and the broadest intended audience (the whole of the voting population rather than the party faithful) will keep the cause of a science debate firmly in an ignored niche.

There is also a partisan angle to this organization, making it harder than it has to be to attract interest from more than one party and undercutting the value of any ‘science debate.’  Absent the presence of former Representative Vernon Ehlers (also a physicist), and former Republican Governor of Minnesota Arne Carlson on the Science Debate Board, the others on the Science Debate board with political backgrounds are predominantly Democrats.  And the presence of Chris Mooney on the board pretty much taints the organization’s multi-partisan potential given his polemic The Republican War on Science.

If I were to push for a science debate, I would look more toward the U.K. than the U.S. for a successful model.  There have been cross-party debates focused on science and technology policy issues prior to U.K. Parliamentary elections.  While they have been between the parties science ministers, rather than the prime minister candidates the debates have been the kind of detailed discussion of the issues that I think Science Debate would be happy to have in the U.S.  Unfortunately, I think there is too much interest in pushing a particular debate rock up the same hill over and over again, and little ability to see other possibilities.

APA Not Waiting For Council Meeting To Act On Collusion Report

Yesterday the American Psychological Association (APA) announced the retirements and resignations of several high-ranking officials.  Even the press release acknowledges that the recent release of the report on APA collusion with the government affected these departures.  While the APA has made recommendations to its Council of Representatives meeting next month, ongoing criticism of the association made more immediate

Leaving are the Chief Executive Officer, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer and the executive director for public and member communications.  While not mentioned in the press release, ScienceInsider is reporting that the APA ethics director is also leaving.  They will depart between the end of this month and the end of the year.  Other departures may be forthcoming, based on the recommendations of APA critics that reviewed the report prior to its release.

Additionally, two former APA Presidents have released a response to the report, which includes discussion of some of the collusion claims.  The former presidents acknowledge that the APA response was poorly executed, but they assert that the association did what it could with the information that it had.  That Hoffman and his staff have said something similar about their report suggests that definitive answers will be hard to find agreement.

The former presidents do raise two point worth considering for any scientific society.  First, the APA lacked the resources and the mechanisms to conduct the kind of investigation into abuses involving psychologists and physicians that critics have called for.  I suspect that is true of other scientific societies.  The former presidents also ask why other societies have not been subjected the kind of scrutiny that the APA has.  For me, that speaks to a larger issue of scientific conduct, and to what extent scientific societies are (or are not) dealing with the misconduct of their membership.

While these points might be made from a defensive crouch by these former association presidents, it’s worth noting how difficult it could be for scientific societies to actively police misconduct, and how ill-prepared they might be to do so.

APA Report Indicates Evidence Of Collusion On Interrogation Policy

Last November the American Psychological Association (APA) launched an investigation in response to allegations by author James Rosen.  Rosen alleged in his book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War that the association colluded with George W. Bush Administration officials in the development of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.  In response, the APA engaged attorney David Hoffman (a former assistant U.S. Attorney) to conduct the investigation, and the report was released on Thursday (H/T The Washington Post).  The report release is in advance of the APA Council of Representatives meeting in August.

The report is extensive, over 560 pages plus appendices.  Hoffman and his staff have detailed the challenges they have had in meeting with witnesses, many of whom have either declined to do so or delayed meeting for months.  The report takes pains to state it does not provide a definitive answer to the matter, but provides as many answers as it could, while organizing and presenting the evidence they have as best they believe they could.

Bottom line, the report indicates there was collusion between elements of the APA and various government agencies over the use of psychologists in connection with ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.  While the report did not find evidence that APA officials knew of a program using such techniques, it did find that officials had reason to suspect that abusive interrogations had occurred.  Those officials also took steps to avoid confirming such suspicions.  The collusion extended to developing APA policies that would not place additional constraints on Department of Defense interrogation practices.

The APA Board of Directors regrets these activities and apologized for them in a press release associated with the report.  The Board has also recommended the following policy actions to the APA Council, which meets in August.

  • Adopt a policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogation of persons held in custody by military and intelligence authorities, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, but allowing training of military personnel on recognizing and responding to persons with mental illnesses, on the possible effects of particular techniques and conditions of interrogation and other areas within their expertise;
  • Create a Commission to evaluate and recommend changes to APA ethics processes;
  • Adopt formal guidelines to ensure that all relevant policies are anchored in APA core values, including promoting human rights, human welfare and ethics;
  • Approve the substitute motion of Council New Business Item #23B, which clarifies the role of psychologists related to interrogation and detainee welfare in national security settings and safeguards against acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in all settings.

The Board also approved the following actions:

  • Increase the organization’s engagement around human rights activities in collaboration with other organizations;
  • Collaborate with the Council to create governance constraints on elected and appointed APA officials;
  • Evaluate existing conflict-of-interest policies regarding financial, policy or relationship-based conflicts to ensure the policies are understood and followed;
  • Adopt clear procedures for appointing members to APA Task Forces and Commissions;
  • Create specific criteria for emergency action by the Board.