Archive for the 'Science and Politics' category

Obstructing Science in the Senate - Only You Can Stop It

Mar 05 2009 Published by under Science and Politics

As of this morning, it appears that the nominations of both John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco (the President's picks for Science Advisor and NOAA Administrator, respectively) are still stalled in the Senate. If we don't raise more hell over this issue - and keep raising hell - it's likely that these nominees will remain stuck in limbo for quite some time, and the Administration's efforts to forge a new science and environmental policy will be hampered as a result. Do you want that to happen?

The issue is receiving relatively little attention from the traditional press, but one report yesterday indicated that the nominations were being blocked by multiple Senators. Speaking off the record with several Senate staffers from different offices yesterday, I learned that Senators do not normally officially place their own holds on a nomination if there is an existing hold. However, more than one of the staffers I spoke with indicated that there are holds, plural, keeping the nominations from advancing further.

It is possible for the nominations to move forward despite the holds. Doing that would require two things: 60 votes, and the Majority Leader's willingness to risk irritating another Senator or Senators. So far, Senator Reid's office has not commented when asked if there is any plan to move forward with the nominations.

A NOAA spokesman told me that having the Administrator position unfilled does not prevent NOAA from moving forward, and that their budget shop is currently working on a plan together on how to best use the more than $800 million allocated to NOAA in the stimulus bill. If the Administrator position is not filled when the time comes, they will take the plan on up to the Department of Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget. I'm certainly pleased to hear that NOAA does not feel that the situation is creating significant difficulties. However, it's probably worth noting that the Commerce Secretary position is also currently unfilled, that the Office of Management and Budget might be a little busy at the moment, and that there have been reports that some projects are in fact on hold while the department awaits the new Administrator.

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Science in the Senate: It's Not Just Menendez; Full Court Press Badly Needed.

Mar 04 2009 Published by under Science and Politics

It appears that yesterday's reports that New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez was holding up the confirmation of both the Science Advisor and the NOAA administrator were not entirely correct. He may well be delaying these confirmations, but he's apparently not the only one. CQ Politics is now reporting that the nominations are being held by multiple members of the Senate. Due to the holds, there is currently no confirmation vote scheduled on the floor.

This is a very reliable report. CQ Politics is not basing this on anonymous sources. They are quoting Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller. Rockefeller's committee has jurisdiction over the nominations, and held a confirmation hearing for both nominees last month. Given his position, it's very unlikely that Rockefeller is wrong.

This is the worst possible time for this to be happening. The stimulus package that has already been passed into law contained an enormous boost in science funding. NOAA alone received more than $800 million in additional funding. These jobs need to be filled, and they need to be filled yesterday. CQ Politics quotes AAAS Chairman Alan Leshner on the issue:

“Given the importance of science-related issues both to economic recovery and the major issues of the day, it’s unfortunate that these nominations are being held up for reasons unrelated to the merits of the nominees,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an international science advocacy organization and publisher of the journal Science. “One of the advantages of these appointments is that they are true experts who are leaders in science. We need them to lead. Now.”

Leshner is exactly right. We need these two highly qualified scientists in their new positions. Unfortunately, it's clear that this will not happen on its own. If we want the Senate to take action on these nominations, we are going to have to take steps to make sure that they know that this is not an issue that will stay hidden in the shadows. To put it bluntly, we're going to have to raise so much hell that taking action becomes the less painful option for the Senate leadership.

Here's what we need to do:

1. We need to bring as much pressure from as many sources as possible.

If you work with other scientists, bring this issue to their attention. Get them to get involved, too. If you've got colleagues at other institutions, pass the word to them. We've all got a stake in this.

If you're a member of a scientific society, bring this to their attention and ask them to take a stand. In particular, contact AAAS. Leshner's remarks in the CQ article are a good start, but it doesn't look like they've taken an official stand. Yet. Advocacy is part of their job. Ask them to advocate, and to help spread the word. it's not enough. Let's see if we can get more groups to get involved.

The AAAS executive office phone number is 202-326-6640.

If you are involved with other advocacy organizations, such as ScienceDebate2008, get in touch with them, and ask them to put the word out to their membership.

2. Contact the Senate Leadership.

The Senate can, if they so choose, bring the matter to the floor despite the holds. Reid has disregarded holds in the past. Ask him to disregard these holds, too. Remind him of the importance of filling these positions, particularly now that the stimulus has passed. Remind him, too, of the importance of the positions in general.

If you contacted him yesterday, do it again today.

Here's the contact information, including the email form and the Nevada address of one of his Nevada offices:

Email (web form)

DC Phone Number: 202-224-3542

Nevada address and phone:

600 East William St, #302

Carson City, NV 89701

Phone: 775-882-REID (7343)

Fax: 775-883-1980

3. We need to put this issue in front of as many Senators as possible.

Contact your own Senators. Tell them that this is an important issue, and that these nominees deserve a floor vote as soon as possible. Again, if you contacted them yesterday, contact them again today. If you're a registered voter, make sure you tell them that. If you donated any money to their campaign, make sure that you tell them that, too.

It would be especially good to contact the Senators who are on the Commerce Committee, since they are the ones who had the opportunity to question the nominees during the hearing. I'll put a list of the committee members below the jump, so you can check and see if one of your Senators is on the committee.

4. We need to keep pressure on Senator Menendez
. None of the other Senators who have holds on the nomination have been identified, so he's still the only one we know (or at least strongly suspect) is blocking progress.

I posted contact information for Menendez yesterday. If you use the email form to contact him, be aware that non-NJ addresses probably don't receive much attention. (There are NJ addresses for the Senator's NJ offices in yesterday's post, but I would of course never stoop to suggesting that people substitute those addresses for their own.) If you emailed him yesterday, email him today AND make a phone call. The number for his DC office is 202.224.4744. If you DIDN'T contact him yesterday, contact him today.

We need to make this happen. We need a coherent and coordinated national science policy right now. We also need to make sure that the new resources that science has received are allocated as wisely as possible. These things need to happen now, but they cannot happen at all if these positions remain unfilled.

Please find a few minutes today to make a few phone calls and send a few emails. This is important.

Updated: 4 Mar 15:30

Alan Leshner pointed out to me that AAAS is a non-profit, and not an advocacy group. I've corrected the text above to reflect that. I've also corrected the spelling of his last name. I apologize for both errors.

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"Holds" on NOAA Administrator & Science Advisor Confirmations. Call Senators Now.

UPDATE: 4 Mar 09 There are now reports that Senator Menendez is not the only Senator holding up these nominations. I've got a new post up with the updated information and new suggestions for ways you can help.

The Washington Post is reporting that Senate votes to confirm Jane Lubchenco as NOAA Administrator and John Holdren as Science Advisor are currently being obstructed by a Democratic Senator. Quoting multiple unnamed sources, the Post says that New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez has placed an "anonymous hold" on the nominations in order to try to gain leverage for some issues related to Cuba that he's interested in.

Menendez's office, the Post reports, refused to confirm or deny the reports, saying only that it's their "policy" not to "speculate or comment" on matters related to anonymous holds. They also report, however, that a spokesman for Harry Reid said "We will work to try to address any concerns that he [Menendez] may have."

This is completely unacceptable. David Vitter might have been a jerk during last month's confirmation hearing, but even he declined to try to delay confirmation for these nominees. Both of these positions are important parts of the Obama Administration's environmental policy team. They are not unimportant positions, and both the nominees and the positions themselves deserve far more respect than Menendez is displaying. These people have agreed to serve their country. They should not be treated as pawns in whatever unrelated game the Senator is trying to play.

Please take a couple of minutes and contact Menendez's office. Tell him that science policy is too important to use as a pawn in whatever game he's playing. If you can, you should also contact the Majority Leader's office. Remind Senator Reid that science and the environment are important issues, and that you know he can, if he so chooses, push the nominations through over the hold. Contact your own senators, too, and ask them to bring whatever pressure they can on Menendez and Reid.

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama talked about restoring science to its rightful place. We can debate just what that should mean, but I'm sure we can all agree that the rightful place of science in public policy is not as a disposable pawn in an unrelated political game.

Contact information for the various Senators can be found below the jump.

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If I shouldn't say they're anti-science, what should I call it?

Matt "Framing Science" Nisbet has some more advice for scientists on things we shouldn't be saying:

Another frame to avoid is the same type of "war on science" and "restoring science to its rightful place" rhetoric that was used on the campaign trail and in the early days of Obama's administration.

While during the Bush era this public accountability frame justifiably mobilized liberals and many scientists, now that Obama is in office the same message likely alienates Republican segments of the public that the president desperately needs to rally around climate action. The frame provides the heuristic that science is for Democrats and not for Republicans and focuses on conflict rather than consensus.

Let's think about this one for a minute or two. In fact, let's try something radical: let's assume for a minute that Nisbet's actually right. We'll ignore his use of the phrase "likely alienates Republican[s]" and assume that he's got solid data that says that Republicans are definitely alienated by recent uses of "war on science" and "rightful place" in public discussions.

If that's actually true, then I might have messed up yesterday when I (twice) discussed Bobby Jindal's speech. I might not have directly accused Jindal of engaging in anti-science behavior, but I definitely implied it. (I hope I did, anyway, because I was sure as hell trying to.) If I shouldn't have taken that approach, what should I have done?

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16 responses so far

Government Funding for Scientific Research - a summary

As some of you may be aware, over the last couple of weeks Timothy Sandefur and I had a debate on our blogs on the topic of government funding for scientific research. He argued against it; I argued for it. We wrapped up the debate yesterday. If you're interested in taking a look at the whole thing, I've put links to all of the posts in the debate (in chronological order) below the fold.

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19 responses so far

Science Funding and Society: Final Thoughts

What Government - at least as we know it - Is.

Timothy Sandefur and I have been debating the proper role of government in funding scientific research for a couple of weeks now. Over the course of the debate, it's become clear to me that he and I do not have a common understanding about what our government actually is, or what the right relationship between the government and the citizens actually is.

Over the years, we humans have tried out more forms of government than you can shake a stick at. In the context of this particular debate, though, whenever we've used the term "government", we've been talking about something that's at least similar to what we've got in the United States right now. Objectively speaking, it's a system of government where the various bureaucracies are directly overseen by political appointees, as well as by the elected legislative branch and elected executive. I would hope that Mr. Sandefur and I would agree about that much (even if we do not agree about the effectiveness of the oversight).

We don't agree on just what the relationship between this government and the citizens actually is.

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Choice, Value, and the Internet: The Sandefur Debate Continues.

In his opening remarks for the latest entry in our ongoing debate about public financing for science, Timothy Sandefur suggests that after this post, we move on to concluding remarks. That strikes me as a reasonably good idea (and not just because he's generously offered me the last word). We may not have yet reached a point where we're talking past each other, but we're definitely getting dangerously close to that point.

After reading through Tim's latest post, I'm going to respond to his points out of order. I'm going to start out by looking at the more concrete examples that we've been looking at: the internet, and environmental research. Sandefur writes:

What's more, Dunford tried to use the Internet as an example of the necessity of government to fund innovation because private industry wouldn't do it. He writes "No one company expended--or had to expend--the tremendous research and development funding required to develop the basic foundation of the internet." But in fact private industry often develops basic, foundational technologies; it routinely performs research to develop new technological and scientific platforms for innovation and development. Sadly, given the nature of our mixed economy, there are no examples of this being done without some government intervention. But everything from the telephone to radio to television to the automobile to the airplane--these things have been developed overwhelmingly by private enterprise, doing research and development in fundamental ways without significant government intervention. Private industry invented MS-DOS and the GUI interface, both foundational technologies. The development of the airplane was done not only without government help, but in direct competition with the government, and that technology required significant scientific advances that were done by private industry. Look at what has been done with it today! The steam engine was developed almost independently of government intervention. Look what happened to it. The Xerox machine...well, this list could go on.

In the case of the internet, I think we do have at least some evidence that suggests that private industry was not able - or at least as able - to get the ball rolling on something along the lines of the internet. Through most of the 1980s and early 1990s, there were multiple companies that were running online information services (America Online and CompuServe were the two biggies there). The services did OK for a while, but they were ultimately crippled by one of the free-market side-effects: they weren't very inter-compatible.

Each of the companies that was providing online services had its own software and its own standards. These companies could have teamed up to come up with a common standard that would allow their users to access each others content. In fact, they had well over a decade of independent operation, and could have moved toward interconnectivity at any time. They chose not to.

Had they made a different choice, there's a chance that this might be a very different argument. But I don't think it's a very big chance. The companies did not move toward interconnectivity because they didn't see a financial motivation to do so. The users weren't demanding interconnectivity (yet), and it would really have taken supernatural powers to predict how the internet would change everything.

Later on, when the users were demanding interconnectivity, AOL, CompuServe, and the other service providers elected to connect to the internet instead of trying to come up with their own alternative. The government did not force them to integrate their services with the internet. They chose to do so.

And it's not a surprise that they did. The internet, at that point, was still largely the result of various government initiatives. By the time the commercial online companies were looking to tie into it, the internet had huge advantages over any attempt to come up with a commercial alternative. By the early 1990s, the protocols were in place, they were available for anyone's use, and no one company or organization had a proprietary interest in the foundational structure. The freedom that's provided by this unique infrastructure is what enabled the massive expansion of the internet over the last 15 or so years.

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The Role of the Government in Research - A Response.

A few days ago, Timothy Sandefur posted his second entry in our ongoing debate on the benefits and pitfalls of government funding for the sciences. I've been a bit busy, and I'm just finding time to respond now - I apologize for the delay. While I was doing other things over the weekend, he also posted a response to an article by Steven Quake that I blogged about earlier. This is my response to his rebuttal to my earlier post. I may or may not find the time to reply to his examination of the Quake article later on.

The Internets:

In my first post in the debate, I pointed out that this debate is taking place on the internet. I mentioned that because I thought - and still think - that the internet represents a fantastic example of why it can be really good to fund scientific research. Sandefur disagrees on both philosophical and pragmatic grounds.

Philosophically, he points to the issue of choice:

To assess the costs and benefits of a government subsidy, it's necessary to keep in mind the unseen costs: that is, the things that might have been created if the money had not been taken out of the hands of private individuals and spent on things that they actually wanted. Sure, military research created Arpanet in the 1960s. But if that money had been left in the hands of private investors, what would they have done with it? Maybe they would have created a super-duper Arpanet that would have been far cooler and we would have had Wikipedia twenty years earlier. Or maybe they would have wasted it on weekend trips to Vegas. Nobody knows, and nobody can know. But the one thing we can be sure of: taxpayers in the 1960s got Arpanet instead of what they would have spent that money on if they had had the choice. That means that they were forced to pay for something they didn't want--and by definition, that means it was economically inefficient. Now, maybe we think that it was still wiser for the government to deprive people of their freedom of choice in this way--but it's not logically possible to say that people benefited from this, when they were deprived of any say in the matter.

I find it difficult to agree that it is not logically possible to say that people benefit from something if they have no say over the matter. Education, for example, strikes me as a clear benefit - both to the individuals concerned and society as a whole. Parents are required to provide their children with an education, and the government (using taxpayer dollars) ensures that they will be able to provide their children with at least a certain minimum level of knowledge and skills. Children receive a certain level of training in a range of basic skills regardless of the means or inclination of their parents, which provides them with more employment opportunities than they would have if not educated. Because all children are receiving at least a certain amount of education, employers have a larger pool of qualified potential employees to draw from. Even the parents might benefit - there's probably a greater chance that their kids will be able to provide for them in their old age if they're educated.

I may well be missing Tim's basic point here, and if so I'd welcome a better explanation, but at the moment it looks to me like it is possible for people to benefit, even in situations where they're deprived of a choice. If there is some definition of these terms that makes it impossible, I suspect that the problem lies with the definition, not with reality.

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Why it's good for us to fund scientific research.

Tim Sandefur and I don't agree about the proper role of government when it comes to funding scientific research. He fairly strongly believes that there are many reasons why it's wrong for the government to fund scientific research. Tim's provided a number of reasons to support his belief, and I agreed to use my blog as a platform to make my own case for the involvement of government in science.

In the abstract, many of the reasons that the government should not be involved in funding research sound fairly compelling. Unfortunately, those arguments were made on the internet. At the end of the day, the medium undercut the message.

We use research to facilitate new kinds of commerce, and to improve everyone's day to day lives. It's a part of our infrastructure, every bit as much as roads and bridges are. Providing for infrastructure of various sorts has been considered to be one of the functions of the government for centuries (if not longer), and for good reason:

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Should the State Pay for Science?

Timothy Sandefur and I recently wound up arguing the pros and cons of government funding for basic scientific research. We've decided to take our discussion from email to our blogs.

Tim is a libertarian, and it's safe to say that he's not the world's largest fan of government funding for most things, including science. He just posted a detailed explanation of his position at his blog Freespace. I'll be posting a response here sometime tomorrow.

If you're convinced that it's obviously good to have the government fund scientific research, I'd suggest that you go read Tim's post.

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