Good policy still matters.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” – Matthew 7:12

In recent months, Earth scientists, whether focused on natural resources, hazard resilience, or protection of ecosystem services provided by forests, wetlands, floodplains, etc. have expressed growing dismay and anxiety about Washington politics.

This is especially true among younger[1], early-career scientists: Government professionals fretting about their jobs and the future relevance and contributions of their research and services. Engineers in aerospace firms concerned about the continuity of vital Earth observations from space. Academics and entrepreneurs alike apprehensive about the future for the federal seed-funding that germinates U.S. innovation.

Much of this concern is misplaced.

True, there’s been real cause for trepidation. Take political rhetoric: claims that: climate change isn’t real; environmental regulation is purely oppressive rather than life-sustaining; historic U.S. efforts to maintain breathable air and drinkable water have gone too far; environmental protection comes only at the expense of jobs. Then there are the swingeing budget cuts proposed for research, especially targeting anything with a whiff of “climate” (not just climate change) or “environment,” but also aimed more broadly across Earth and even social sciences. And more generally, politics is driving the national dialog to polarized extremes instead of seeking to build public consensus or accommodation.

Concern extends beyond politics to political procedures. The Founding Fathers constructed a Constitution that bows to majority rule while at the same time protecting minority rights, and ensures that government serves the people rather than the other way around. Recent years have seen those elements compromised and eroded. In the House of Representatives today, the majority party need pay only lip service to the minority. The Senate, which historically has operated on more collegial rules, has increasingly trended to diminish the role of discussion, debate, and every individual Member in its process, moving toward rules that make the Senate more like the House, favoring simple party majority. Today some worry that Congress might have lost a bit of the self-correcting character that has historically protected against bad legislation.

But students of government remind us that there is a third leg to this particular stool. In addition to politics and procedure, there is policy. Politics and procedure aren’t yet sufficient to push through any old statute. The legislation has to contain the germ of a good policy idea.

Events of the past few days suggest this third principle remains alive and well. Case in point? Those seeking to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have pulled back, at least for the moment. They’ve retreated – but not because the politics or procedures have changed – the party of repeal is still in charge, and continues to control all the levers of power. Instead, members of the party in power, for varying reasons, expressed reservations about the policies underlying the legislation as written. (Oversimplifying), members of the so-called Tuesday Group were concerned by Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasts that the proposed legislation would cause millions of people to lose coverage. The Freedom Caucus wanted repeal of what they viewed as onerous mandates, in favor of freedom to choose. When interviewed for the media, House members cited these and other policy concerns as the reasoning underlying their intention to vote “no.”

Some analysts noted that the original ACA, though deeply flawed, was built around a single, big, and positive idea: that all Americans should enjoy some measure of health care as a right. By contrast, the original repeal movement lacked any corresponding broad appeal, as did the repeal-and-replace substitute that came along on its heels. Absent such a compelling, aspirational goal, both politics and procedure bogged down.

Big idea? Fact is, behind the already big idea of affordable health care for everyone is an even grander ideal – nothing less than the Golden Rule; do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Please reflect for a moment. What one of us doesn’t cringe inwardly at the risk posed by a personal or family health crisis? For starters, our very lives are at stake. But so is the quality of those lives. Illness and injury too often means incapacitating pain, sometimes lasting a lifetime. Absent health insurance, victims and their families find that cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart problems, or an accident can also bring financial ruin. We therefore take comfort in the idea that 320M Americans have our back. In like measure we are willing to contribute to the care of others through health insurance premiums. It’s this Golden-Rule logic that’s behind social security, Medicare and Medicaid, appropriations for national security, and more.

That reality contains both encouragement and reasons for concern for Earth scientists. On the one hand, the broad, sweeping budget cuts tabled by the administration are unlikely to be pushed through. Congress demonstrated last week that it can and will push back as the occasion warrants. Programs with obvious, on-the-ground benefits for large swathes of the population such as national weather services, Earth observing satellites, and the National Sea Grant Program are likely to be maintained for that reason.

But scientists can’t afford to be complacent.

It’s equally clear that scientists have failed to make the case for other parts of their (our) agenda. The arguments we offer are flawed in several ways. In some cases, we’ve been unnecessarily confrontational. In others, we’ve invested too little in the study of science’s economic benefits and costs. As a result, after-the-fact analyses claiming to show such benefits are too often superficial and incomplete. Science advocacy can too easily look self-serving – focusing more on the need to keep science and scientists funded, with only vague justification for the benefit.

But the issues go deeper than mere messaging. Some analysis suggests that science programs designed to address national needs start out well, but lacking outside oversight, can over time lose their way. In part, this is because we underinvest in systematic thought about so-called technology transfer, the process by which Federal agencies, funding most of U.S. basic research, coordinates with the private sector to put that research to work for societal benefit.

The cure? Partly this is structural; we need to build national capacity for putting science and engineering to work for society as a whole – not just domestically, here in the United States, but worldwide. This requires strategic thinking across all levels of government as well as the private sector, and an improved collaboration between the two.

But at the individual level as well, you and I can and possibly should consider personal actions. We need to consciously and deliberately build trusted relationships with those of every political persuasion, social stratum, ethnic background or philosophy, and so on. We need to stay focused on the benefit to end users as well as the mere intellectual challenge of the work, or the respect of peers, or business profit. We might ask how (and even whether) our work also leads to concrete, easily understood benefits for all Americans, regardless of social class or political persuasion or faith or ethnicity or age or health, or any other grouping.

There’s a further step. Society faces both immediate and longer term needs. It’s not enough for the payoff, however big, to be confined solely to a distant, problematic, and uncertain future. Neither is it sufficient merely to make things more comfortable in the short term by compromising the prospects of our children and grandchildren.

Not every scientist can or needs to participate in the same way across this spectrum. Some are needed to work these problems full-time, in a structured way. But all of us should participate to some extent. Our social contract didn’t suddenly become problematic, so we can’t expect to repair it overnight. Adding to the prevailing contention doesn’t seem like the right approach either. A march on a single spring day doesn’t seem like enough.

What can we do in a more sustained way, that matches the nature of the problem?

The same faith that brought us the Golden Rule also brought us the notion of tithing – giving ten percent. In that spirit, each of us might devote a percentage of our work to serious, disciplined study of how we benefit the public who ultimately support us. Here are two practical ways that might work:

  1. We could reflect a bit each day or each week on this passage from Francis Bacon, a natural philosopher, dating back four hundred years, but still salient today:

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

  1. Want to do more? You could participate in this year’s AMS Summer Policy Colloquium – that is, invest ten days (this year, June 4-13) in being as disciplined in our approach to policy as we are to our science – and see where that leads. There’s still time to sign up/would like to see you there. This year, of all years, promises to be interesting.

Coming soon? A return to finish up reflections on the world’s $100T investment in food-, water-, and energy critical infrastructure, and how the United States – and Earth scientists – can help.


[1] Full disclosure? These days, they all look young to me.

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One Response to Good policy still matters.

  1. Bill:-

    There’s much that could be said about government “charity” vs personal charity (e.g., using someone else’s money for a popular cause vs using my own to do what I believe to be the right thing), but not germane here. As you so often do, you cast a little different light on an issue of major importance to all of us who are scientists: how do we balance our personal drive to discover a sliver of Truth with our obligations to the public who fund us? Put another way, how and when should we as scientists step beyond our professional roles and become policy advocates? Large research universities have been grappling with this for decades, esp. regarding medical research. Their answers generally are institutional policies offering guidelines for conduct. The continuing appearance of new controversies testify to their relative ineffectiveness.

    And what of scientists working for or directly funded by the government? You and I both were. We both advocated for policies that we believed in, as a part of our jobs. But we both have seen science – and especially its funding – become much more politicized than it was even in Y2K. While there are rules limiting government employees’ participation in political activities these were framed with elections in mind. Deciding whether and how to limit CO2 emissions has become every bit as political as choosing between bad government and misgovernment. I hope you will continue to illuminate the issue of scientists and advocacy – scientists’ responsibility to the public that funds them.

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