Archive for the 'Science, Policy, and Management' category

Holdren and Lubchenco Confirmation Update: Yes, I Feel Like the Energizer Bunny.

Mar 12 2009 Published by under Science, Policy, and Management

UPDATE - 17:35 CDT: According to the New York Times, all holds are gone as of this afternoon, the Commerce Committee has unanimously approved the two nominees, and they're expected to be confirmed by unanimous consent early next week.

But that's because the holds are still going. And going. And going.

And there's really nothing new to report. So, instead, I'm going to speculate. But business before pleasure:

Please, please, continue to apply pressure to your own Senators and to Majority Leader Harry Reid. I realize that this is getting really old by now. It's probably starting to feel like tilting at windmills - but without that rewarding "crash" at the end. But our options remain limited. We can keep making calls and sending emails, or we can do nothing. Contacting Congress may not work, but doing nothing definitely won't - and even if it doesn't accomplish anything now, the more involved we stay, the better the chance that more members of Congress will start to get the message that there are advocates for good science policy.

And now the speculation:

Today, Elana Schor reports at Talking Points Memo that she's been hearing rumors that the Senator responsible for the holds is Vitter, and that she's been unable to get any response beyond the initial denial from the Senator himself. I've heard similar things, and so has Philip Munger of Progressive Alaska. I've been discounting those reports in favor of believing Vitter's denial, but Elana's most recent report does make me wonder if that's a good idea.

If it is Vitter, there are a two things that are certain:

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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

Volcano Monitoring and the Stimulus: Cost Effective and a Clear Public Good

I've already talked about the basic dishonesty Bobby Jindal exhibited when he took a swipe at the mention of "volcano monitoring" in the stimulus - Jindal claimed that there was $140 million in there for "volcano monitoring", when it's actually only one of a number of projects listed under that line - but there's something more important that I didn't discuss. I took a swipe at the messenger, but what about the message? Jindal may be a liar, but that doesn't make him wrong.

He is wrong, of course. He delivered the argument dishonestly, but the argument still fails on the merits. Volcano monitoring is a legitimate governmental function, and it would still be a good investment even if we were spending the entire $140 million on nothing but monitoring.


Before I get into the public policy questions, let's take a quick look at the costs. Volcano monitoring is (as many others have already pointed out) something that needs to be done if you want to avoid losses of life and property in a volcanic eruption. Unless you're near a Hawaiian-type volcano, with it's picturesque slow-flowing basaltic lavas, you really need to get out of the way before the mountain goes boom and falls down. If you want to be able to get out of the way before the insanely hot wall of burning rock, mud, and ash hits you, you probably want to have someone monitoring the thing.

The best example we've got of a case where volcano monitoring has worked really well is the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology had been monitoring the volcano for a while, and when it started to show signs of life USGS geologists came to assist. The US Air Force, acting on the advice of the USGS scientists, evacuated Clark Air Force base.


(Source: Wikipedia)

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18 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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5 responses so far

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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7 responses so far

Want to get involved in high level science policy? Here's what you need to know.

Feb 12 2009 Published by under Science, Policy, and Management

If you've ever wondered what kind of knowledge base is required to become involved at high levels in science and technology policy, you might want to watch a Senate confirmation hearing sometime. Earlier today, Drs. John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco sat down in front of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Dr. Holdren is President Obama's nominee to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) - a job that's better known as the Presidential Science Advisor. Dr. Lubchenco has been selected as the Administrator of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

Earlier, I liveblogged the hearing. Here are some more general observations:

The two appointees took questions from members of the committee on a wide range of topics.

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5 responses so far

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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13 responses so far

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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