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.

The Quest For Science Advice Continues

The European Commission is still working on its next science advice mechanism.  The new Commission has opted for an advisory council rather than a chief science adviser, and the research Commissioner, Carlos Moedas, announced the next step in this process earlier this week (H/T ScienceInsider).

Three people have been selected to assist the Commission in identifying the members of the new advisory body.  They are Sir David King, Rianne Letschert, and António Vitorino.  Sir King is a former Government Chief Scientific Adviser for the United Kingdom, Letschert is a professor of criminal law and chair of the Young Academy in the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and Vitorino is a former deputy prime minister of Portugal (Commissioner Moedas’s country) and European Commissioner.  The three will develop criteria for selection and a preliminary list of names for consideration.  Their methodology should be made public in the next two weeks.  The plan is to have the group up and running in October.

Meanwhile, Canadian MP Kennedy Stewart continues his quest to establish an independent Parliamentary science officer.  His bill, introduced (what is called tabled in many Parliaments) in 2013, still has a chance before the elections expected sometime this year.  Stewart restated his case for the position in this article he cowrote with Andrew Cuddy for Policy Options.  I’d avoid the introduction, which tries to link his bill with the ongoing restrictions Canadian government scientists face in publicizing their research.  Focus on the meat of the piece, which is a good summary of what the Parliamentary science officer would do, and how it’s different from the closest Canadian analog, the Office of the National Science Adviser.  Those dying for a U.S. equivalent might look toward the Office of Technology Assessment, though it was not organized in the same fashion that the Parliamentary science officer would.

The next Canadian Parliamentary elections are tentatively scheduled for late October, so we should know what will happen in both Canada and Europe around science advice at the same time.  Something to look forward to.

Senate Commerce Committee Seeks Comments On COMPETES Reauthorization

As the American Institute of Physics notes in its FYI series, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has started work on a re-authorization of the COMPETES legislation.  Initially signed in 2007 by President George W. Bush, the bill covers authorization levels for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy.  The bill was reauthorized in 2010, and is overdue for another re-authorization.

The Committee announced that Senators Gardner (Republican – Colorado) and Peters (Democrat – Michigan) would lead the committee’s effort toward a re-authorization bill.  The Senators will start a series of meetings and briefings this month and seek input from interested parties.  Topics in these meeting will include: supporting basic research; improving education research and practices in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM), and translating federal research into commercial applications for the benefit of the economy and society.

Interested parties can submit their comments by email to SciencePolicy@ commerce.senate.gov.  The committee has set a deadline on comments of August 21.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee started work on a re-authorization in 2013.  That process took over two years to produce a bill that passed the House.  Unfortunately, that process also demonstrated that the bi-partisan comity that was a hallmark of the Committee until about 2007 has completely evaporated.  The resulting House bill received no support from Democrats and the hint of a veto threat from the White House.  Should the Senate manage to pass a bill with support from both parties, it will still have to reconcile that bill with the House.  I wouldn’t expect this to happen before 2016.

What effect the presidential campaign will have on things is unclear.  Two committee members (Senators Cruz and Rubio) are running for President at the moment, but only one of them – Cruz – chairs a relevant subcommittee.  By the time legislation is ready for committee markup (probably early next year), the campaign trail may be commanding their attention too much for them to give this bill much heed.

Manhattan Project National Historic Park Is On Its Way

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.

In late December Congress authorized the development of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (NHP).  The Park, which would be managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in conjunction with the Department of Energy, will be in three separate locations that were critical to the development of U.S. nuclear weapons capability:

  • Oak Ridge, Tennessee
  • Hanford, Washington
  • Los Alamos, New Mexico

While some units in the NPS are non-connected locations with a common theme (such as the various parks and monuments in Washington, D.C.), the Manhattan Project NHP will be the only one so spread out that you would really need to fly to see each location.

The Manhattan Project NHP is also unique due to the collaboration between the NPS and the Department of Energy, which still has active facilities in each of the three locations.  Having grown up near one of them, I can state that there are historical sites already open to the public, but a coordinated effort between the three locations and the two agencies should augment the opportunities to engage with that history.  The Atomic Heritage Foundation has done a lot of work in this area, and will be an important partner to this final push to make the Manhattan Project NHP a reality.

This NHP would be one of the few sites administered by the NPS engaged with technology of the 20th century.  While technology of the day factors into many NPS displays and presentations, it is not often the driving force behind a particular park, monument or historic site (the Thomas Edison NHP being an exception that comes to mind).  Perhaps in the coming decades we will see NASA collaborating with the NPS on a space-focused NHP spanning sites in Florida, Texas and California.

Per the enabling legislation, the NPS and the Energy Department are hard at work in developing a Memorandum of Understanding that would outline their respective responsibilities in managing the NHP.  This must be done by December 19th of this year, at which time the NHP becomes official.  This would end a process started back in 2001 and shepherded by countless numbers of people.  Thanks.