Category Archives: Science Policy

Should Scientists Participate in Political Debates?

This Pielke piece is really excellent — it gets right to the essence of the distinction between “stealth issue advocacy” and “honest brokering”

I have long pointed to Real Climate as a canonical example of stealth issue advocacy. They claim on their site to be disinterested:

The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.

The reality is that they are far from disinterested. The fact that they have a political agenda is not problematic in the slightest. The problem is that they are seeking to hide their politics behind science. This has the net effect of pathologically politicizing the science because most of the issues that they raise, which they say are scientific in nature, are really about politics. It is not a big leap for observers to conclude that these guys are really about politics rather than science, regardless of the reality. People are not dumb and can see through this sort of misdirection with relative ease. Perhaps the most significant and lasting consequence of the CRU email hack/leak/whatever will be to strip away any possibility of a facade of disinterestedness among these activist scientists. In the long run that is probably a very good thing. In the near term it probably means an even more politicized climate debate.

In The Honest Broker I describe three effective roles that scientists can play in policy debates (the Pure Scientist does not play any direct role):

  • The Science Arbiter who responds to questions put forward by decision makers.
  • The Issue Advocate who seeks to reduce the cope of political choice.
  • The Honest Broker who seeks to expand, or at least clarify, the scope of choice.

The Stealth Issue Advocate claims to be a Pure Scientist or a Science Arbiter, but really is working to reduce the scope of choice using science. A problem is that science is particularly ill-suited for political battles because decisions that take place in the context of uncertainty or a conflict in values always involve much more than science. One message of The Honest Broker is that, even though these categories are very much ideal types, scientists do face a choice about what role to play in the political process. And among the more damaging roles to the institutions of science is the Stealth Issue Advocate.

So to avoid any further misconceptions of my views, should scientists talk about the policy implications of their work? Absolutely. Should they come clean on their political agendas? Yes. That is good for science and good for democratic politics.

Should any scientists, including the guys at Real Climate, wish to explain where they fit in The Honest Broker taxonomy, or where the taxonomy is flawed, I am happy to give them a forum here.

The Honest Broker

Don Monroe offers up a nice review of Roger Pielke’s The Honest Broker. We highly recommend the book so we agree with Monroe:

In case you hadn’t noticed, discussion of global warming has become somewhat polarized. Amid accusations, on the one hand, that industry-financed non-experts deliberately sow confusion, and on the other that a leftist cabal exaggerates the risks and threatens our economy, Roger A. Pielke, Jr. is something of an anomaly.

A professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Pielke is an expert who endorses the broad consensus that humans are causing dangerous changes. But he also criticizes scientists like those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for stifling legitimate dissent in the service of narrow policy options. In his 2007 book, The Honest Broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics, Pielke touches on climate change only tangentially as he outlines how scientists can more constructively contribute to contentious policy decisions.

(…) But the intervening years, Pielke says, have shown that the whole notion that science provides objective information that is then handed over to inform policy makers, the so-called linear model, is naïve and unrealistic. Only rarely, when people share goals and the relation between causes and effects is simple, can scientists meaningfully contribute by sticking to their fields of expertise as a “Pure Scientist” or by providing focused answers to policy questions as a “Science Arbiter.”

More frequently, people do not share goals and the causal relationships are more complicated. Scientists who wish to contribute to these policy debates are naturally pulled into the role of “Issue Advocate,” marshalling the science in support of a narrowed range of politically-supported options. Although this is a useful role, Pielke warns, scientists often drift into it unwittingly. As they deny any political influence on their scientific judgments, these “stealth issue advocates” can damage the authority of science even as they obscure the true nature of the political decision.

To address this problem, Pielke pleads for more scientists to act as “Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives,” to give his complete description. Such scientists, presumably as part of multi-disciplinary committees like the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, would act to expand the available policy alternatives rather than restrict them. Unlike the science arbiter, Pielke’s honest broker recognizes an inseparability of policy issues from the corresponding scientific issues, but nonetheless provides a palette of options that are grounded in evidence.

(…) Nonetheless, Pielke’s short, readable book provides a helpful guide for what we can hope for in policy debates involving science, and how scientists can most productively contribute. What we can’t hope for is a single, science-endorsed answer to complex issues that trade off competing interests and conflicting values. For that, we have politics.

Please continue reading…

Top 10 Things I liked about Prometheus

Roger Pielke’s Prometheus blog has been an important resource and a great pleasure. Sharon Friedman explains why.

A Guest Post by Sharon Friedman

1. We could keep up with the latest in the “big” climate science (as in GCM, IPCC) world in minutes a day. This comes in handy at work “hasn’t the A2 emissions scenario been proven to be way underestimating current conditions?”. Cocktail parties- not so much.

2. We could have discussions only other science policy wonks are interested in.. My model estimates the density of science policy wonks in the US is about 1 per 100 square miles. So without a virtual meeting place, we are likely to never interact except in hubs such as D.C. Those of us who spent time in D.C. can fondly remember our time worshipping at the Temple of Science (the NAS building) through virtual wonkhood.

3. We could interact between science policy practitioners in the real world and academics. What if medical researchers never spoke to actual doctors or got feedback on their research and how it applies in the real world? Whoops, forgot, most sciences do operate that way. This is actually pretty rare, and immensely mutually beneficial.

4. People were civil and respectful and dialogue led to deeper understanding. People would call each other on questionable claims and assumptions without the called upon leaving in a huff. I have tried to comment on some natural resource issues in online newspapers and magazines; the dialogue there seldom has to do with the exchange of ideas but rather clobbering people with accusations about their motives. Our level of civility is darn rare, in my experience.


Please continue reading Sharon… and note that the Prometheus tradition is carried forward at Roger’s new blog.

Science and Politics – Accepting a Dysfunctional Union

Roger Pielke, Jr. has a new article out in the Harvard International Review Summer 2008 — an excellent review of the real world of science policy forumulation, which concludes:

…We have choices in how experts relate to decisionmakers. Whether we are taking our children to the doctor or using science to inform policies, better decisions will be made more often if we pay attention to the role of expertise in decision-making and the different forms that it can take.

Striving for better decisions, rather than trying to separate science and politics, is the best method for dealing with the challenges of the politicization of science.

Asteroid strike risk?

Something else to worry about

…Donald K. Yeomans, who manages the jet propulsion lab’s Near-Earth Object Program, said the Earth’s atmosphere is continually streaked by space stuff, ranging from the basketball-size (several a day) to the Volkswagen-size (twice a year). Almost everything burns up, though some may explode in the air, a phenomenon known as an airburst, with the potential of causing damage below. And then there are objects, like the meteorite that dug a 60-foot-wide crater in Peru last September. Perhaps no bigger than a basketball, the meteorite was a reminder of the destructive power of what is lurking out there.

“In fact, there was a daylight fireball event widely observed near Los Angeles two days ago,” Dr. Yeomans said in an e-mail message last Thursday. “I take these events as Mother Nature’s little reminders that we need to pay attention, find and track the large ones and then deflect the very few that threaten us. Tunguska was another reminder. Until recently, we humans did not pay heed to these shots across the bow but now, I think, there is more of a recognition of this low probability — but high consequence — type of event.”

For deflecting an incoming object, I like the “gravity tractor” concept promoted by Rusty Schweickart’s B612 Foundation [I'm not certain that B612 still considers the gravity tractor to be the best design].

How to Think About the World's Problems

On May 30, the Copenhagen Consensus panel will produce a prioritized list showing the best and worst investments the world could make to tackle major challenges.

Bjorn Lomborg is doing a bit of PR for the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus — results due out May 30th. If you are not familiar with the Copenhagen Consensus, here’s a series of my earlier posts. Here’s Bjorn on the food crisis:

The pain caused by the global food crisis has led many people to belatedly realize that we have prioritized growing crops to feed cars instead of people. That is only a small part of the real problem.

This crisis demonstrates what happens when we focus doggedly on one specific – and inefficient – solution to one particular global challenge. A reduction in carbon emissions has become an end in itself. The fortune spent on this exercise could achieve an astounding amount of good in areas that we hear a lot less about.

Research for the Copenhagen Consensus, in which Nobel laureate economists analyze new research about the costs and benefits of different solutions to world problems, shows that just $60 million spent on providing Vitamin A capsules and therapeutic Zinc supplements for under-2-year-olds would reach 80% of the infants in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with annual economic benefits (from lower mortality and improved health) of more than $1 billion. That means doing $17 worth of good for each dollar spent. Spending $1 billion on tuberculosis would avert an astonishing one million deaths, with annual benefits adding up to $30 billion. This gives $30 back on the dollar.

…Next week, some of the world’s top economists, including five Nobel laureates, will consider new research outlining the costs and benefits of nearly 50 solutions to world problems – from building dams in Africa to providing micronutrient supplements to combating climate change. On May 30, the Copenhagen Consensus panel will produce a prioritized list showing the best and worst investments the world could make to tackle major challenges.

The research and the list will encourage greater transparency and a more informed debate.

Acknowledging that some investments shouldn’t be our top priority isn’t the same as saying that the challenges don’t exist. It simply means working out how to do the most good with our limited resources. It will send a signal, too, to research communities about areas that need more study.

The global food crisis has sadly underlined the danger of continuing on our current path of fixating on poor solutions to high-profile problems instead of focusing on the best investments we could make to help the planet.

There are some good comments in the WSJ Forums, such as the first one from Robert Bennett, Lavaux, Switzerland:

Posted: Thu May 22, 2008 3:42 am Post subject: Re: How to Think About the World’s Problems
If the tag-team wrestling match to set global policy is Al Gore & Hollywood v. Egghead Economist (any will do) & the Copenhagen Consensus, I’ll put my money on Gore & Hollywood every time. The reason is simple: Politics.

Politicians don’t get credit for solving problems; politicians get credit for talking up unrealistic solutions to problems and blaming opponents for their failures. Their payday is earned by expending tons of hot air, not by actually reducing tons of carbon emissions. Change and Hope win votes, and neither of these divine agencies are limited in the slightest by opportunity costs. This isn’t cynicism; it’s an accurate description of how politics works.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Lomborg, and he’d get my vote every day of the week, 52 weeks of the year. But we’ll never overcome Change and Hope by pointing out that there’s more good to be done than there’s money in the world, and to keep the ball rolling we need to do good that earns a high rate of return. This is not what voters want to hear, particularly when most voters believe that someone else will always foot the bills.

Review: The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics

Roger A. Pielke Jr. new book gets a favorable review from biologist Robert T. Lackey:

The Honest Broker is a must-read for any scientist with even a modest interest in environmental policy or politics, and I recommend it especially to scientists unfamiliar with the continuing controversy over how scientists misuse science in environmental policy and politics. The book will also be of interest to political scientists and others well versed in the scholarly literature concerning science, scientists, and public policy, but Roger Pielke’s core analysis and message will not be surprising to these readers.

…Pielke makes the case that another, more helpful role for scientists to play is that of the honest broker. He describes how honest brokers of science are essential to a well-functioning democracy and for the overall, long-term health of the scientific enterprise. In short, he recommends that scientists play the role of honest brokers of policy alternatives. A scientist playing this role seeks to expand the scope of policy choices available to decisionmakers and describes as accurately as possible the consequences of each possible choice. This scientist presents the relevant scientific information to the public and policymakers in a very policyneutral manner.

…In summary, The Honest Broker is an important book, and it should be read by everyone. Healthy democracies need science and scientists to provide what only they can provide: relevant, policy-neutral, understandable science—not stealth policy advocacy. Offering policy advocacy masquerading as science hurts, over the long-term, both democracy and the scientific enterprise.

Roger Pielke, Jr. interviewed at Breakthrough Institute

Roger has joined The Breakthrough Institute as a 2008 Senior Fellow, and will be contributing to the Breakthrough Blog. Don’t miss The Cloth of Science interview, which begins…

You call for greater emphasis on adaptation to protect the world’s poor from the effects of global warming. How do you create a politics on that?

Everyone experiences the impacts of climate no matter where they are, rich or poor. There’s an enormous gap between how well places are prepared and how well they might be prepared. Take a look around the world, and a lot of the things people are striving for — wealth, freedom, opportunities — are associated with being better prepared for the effects of climate.

Is it really true that rich and poor experience climate change equally? I thought the poor, living in substandard housing, living in countries without effective emergency systems and health infrastructure, would be far more vulnerable.

No, certainly not equally. It is true that most of the economic damage is in the rich world and most of the deaths are in the poor world. But not exclusively — Hurricane Mitch in Central America had relatively small economic damages in total dollars, but a huge impact in proportion to the size of national economies, in some cases as large as annual GDP. Similarly, large losses of life happen in rich countries, more than 1,000 in the US in Katrina, 30,000 in France in the 2003 heat wave, etc.

It’s hard to imagine the American people spending billions of dollars to help the people of Bangladesh prepare for rising sea levels or stronger hurricanes. Foreign aid is already fairly unpopular, isn’t it?

It can be unpopular, but I wouldn’t characterize adaptation as “aid.” Much as Ted and Michael have called for a positive message for environmental policies, we need a similar positive message for adaptation. One part of that message is that we help ourselves by helping others. In a globalized, connected world today’s poor are tomorrow’s rich, and therefore also our trading partners, suppliers, and customers. There are other parts of such a positive message, involving improving America’s relationship with poor countries that serve as havens for terrorism, making good on promises to help sustainable development in Africa, and so on. Adaptation is not charity; it is part of building the modern world.

How about creating a politics specifically here in the U.S.?

Look at Hurricane Katrina — even a very wealthy country can be impacted. We’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had many extreme disasters, but when we do have them, it reveals that we’re not as prepared as we thought we were. Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the story of a hurricane — it was the story of a community with poverty, with aging infrastructure, with inequity and a massive governmental failure. One of the disappointments of the tragedy is that Katrina became a story about climate change and not about all these other things. And there are other places in the U.S. with vulnerabilities that we should be playing attention to.

…What is the appropriate role for scientists in political matters?

My sense is that in a lot of areas, not just environmental science, experts have taken on the role of being advocates. Advocacy groups love to wrap themselves in the cloth of science. Right, left, and everything in between likes to wave around a scientific study as the basis for why their moral claims are the right ones. They use science as an argument for reducing the scope of options available to decision makers. This turns science into politics. So instead of battles over morals or politics, we battle over science. In my book The Honest Broker, I argue that scientists have a range of choices in relating to decision makers. And one of the most important roles in helping to expand, or at least clarify, the scope of options available.

…How is the discussion around climate change changing?

It has undergone what might be called a Christmas tree effect; people come to climate change and hang their ornaments on it, using it as a vehicle for whatever topic they happen to be interested in. If you’re interested in growing corn, all of a sudden biofuels become an interest to you. And so on. Climate change is becoming a political vehicle for all sorts of issues. It makes politics very complicated, and it makes it more difficult for new ideas and approaches to be considered. We’re fully into the 100 percent politicized world of climate change now and there’s no going back, making it more important for people to have the ability to introduce new and innovative options.

21 century's grand engineering challenges unveiled

It’s good to see a bit of vision — of looking beyond the next two to four year election cycle. The U.S. National Academy of Engineering [NAE] just put out a press release from their Boston annual meeting, announcing the grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century.

“Tremendous advances in quality of life have come from improved technology in areas such as farming and manufacturing,” said committee member and Google co-founder Larry Page. “If we focus our effort on the important grand challenges of our age, we can hugely improve the future.”

The panel, some of the most accomplished engineers and scientists of their generation, was established in 2006 and met several times to discuss and develop the list of challenges. Through an interactive Web site, the effort received worldwide input from prominent engineers and scientists, as well as from the general public, over a one-year period. The panel’s conclusions were reviewed by more than 50 subject-matter experts.

The final choices fall into four themes that are essential for humanity to flourish — sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability, and joy of living. The committee did not attempt to include every important challenge, nor did it endorse particular approaches to meeting those selected. Rather than focusing on predictions or gee-whiz gadgets, the goal was to identify what needs to be done to help people and the planet thrive.

…The Grand Challenges site features a five-minute video overview of the project along with committee member interview excerpts. A podcast of the news conference announcing the challenges will also be available on the site starting next week.

“Meeting these challenges would be ‘game changing,'” said NAE president Charles M. Vest. “Success with any one of them could dramatically improve life for everyone.”

The NAE has set up a special website to anchor a worldwide community of people interested in advancing any of the challenges. Most of the site sections I have examined include a public comments capability. These are fully-moderated comments, so let us hope that these remain useful [it is an enormous challenge to the site administrators to do this].

Included is a short 6.5 minute video, produced to promote the challenge concept to non-technical audiences.

Here are the fourteen challenges, NOT in priority order [you can assign your own priorities and defend same in the comments]. I’ll just note that #3 which I interpret as meaning “PROVE sequestration methods at industrial scale”, is absolutely essential if we are to have any impact by 2050 on carbon emissions. This was also the conclusion of MIT’s “Future of Coal” report — see this earlier post:

  1. Make solar energy affordable
  2. Provide energy from fusion
  3. Develop carbon sequestration methods
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle
  5. Provide access to clean water
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  7. Advance health informatics
  8. Engineer better medicines
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain
  10. Prevent nuclear terror
  11. Secure cyberspace
  12. Enhance virtual reality
  13. Advance personalized learning
  14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

The committee is comprised of eighteen very-seriously-sparkly scientists and engineers — including some I respect enormously. E.g.,

W. DANIEL HILLIS, chairman and co-founder, Applied Minds Inc.

DEAN KAMEN, founder and president, DEKA Research and Development Corp.

RAYMOND KURZWEIL, chairman and chief executive officer, Kurzweil Technologies Inc.

JAIME LERNER, architect and urban planner, Instituto Jaime Lerner

LARRY PAGE, co-founder and president of products, Google Inc.

ROBERT SOCOLOW, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Princeton University Environmental Institute

J. CRAIG VENTER, president, The J. Craig Venter Institute

I recommend that you bookmark the website, then revisit regularly for updates on the project.