Scientists and politicians have a lot in common. They also – and this may not be so generally appreciated – both want and need the same thing. And, what’s more, to get what they both want, they need each other. Together, these three ingredients should make for a solid, if not a great relationship. But when it comes to talking about the Earth, the real world – the world as resource, victim, and threat – scientists and politicians often find that their conversation, which otherwise had been going well, founders.
Here’s a little more background.
Commonalities. The foremost scientists and politicians have had to work hard for years to get to the top. They work hard, they’re disciplined, and they’re good at what they do. They also know it.
Shared interest. A common goal? Really? Just what might that be? It is … innovation. For scientists, innovation is mother’s milk. For a research paper to be publishable, it must contain a kernel of something both true and new. In fact, it must be so true, and so new, that peer reviewers, who in many cases are not just peers but competitors with the paper’s author, must however grudgingly acknowledge these realities. In practice this turns out to be a rather high bar. A-scientist-who-doesn’t-innovate is an oxymoron – an unemployed oxymoron.
Politicians also need innovation. Without innovation, their task – keeping the wheels of society turning – is a dreary, pessimistic one. Without innovation, the task of feeding the world’s peoples, growing the economy and creating jobs, educating youth, providing health care and a social safety net for an aging demographic, maintaining national security, is no more than a zero-sum game with an unhappy ending. The only hope the United States has of returning to a balanced budget, and reducing some of that fifteen trillion dollars of national debt? Science and technology.
President George Herbert Walker Bush’s science advisor, D. Allan Bromley, famously summarized this in a New York Times op-ed on March 9, 2001, in which he concluded, “No science, no surplus.”
Mutual need. The upshot? Both parties need each other. Politicians need scientists as the engine of innovation. Scientists need financial- and other forms of support from the politicians.
In many areas of science and technology, the partnership is humming: Particle physics. Biotechnology. Nanotechnology. The exploration of space. IT. Materials science. The list is extensive. But when it comes to the real world – biodiversity and the preservation of endangered species, air- and water-quality, natural hazards, climate change — scientists and politicians often clash. They disagree, and they get defensive. And they can’t seem to let go. Instead, both sides keep trying to justify themselves. It’s a snag and a snare – keeping them from getting on with the work at hand.
What to do? Well, it turns out that ideas come from an interesting quarter, a group that has given this sensitive subject a lot of thought – the folks who provide advice to dating couples. Put “change the topic of conversation” into Google, and these advice columns are the first to pop up.
Maybe what works for dating couples will work for scientists and politicians.
So…just what is the advice?
Well here’s one set:
Switch the conversation when you notice that it is getting old, boring, or difficult to talk about. [Whew! That certainly applies to climate change.]
Use subjects that you are currently talking about, and branch from that in small steps. [This would seem to suggest that if you’re struggling with the issue of climate change, you might start talking instead about weather forecasts in support of agriculture, or natural hazards such as flood and drought.]
Go on to talk a little about yourself relating to that subject and ask questions of the other person of which [sic] you are conversing with.
Enjoy a lively conversation which is in your favor and responsibility.
Or from another site:
Look to segue into a better topic. And, if you can’t be subtle, try the direct approach. [Note! For the sake of the relationship it is vital to switch the topic, even when that transition is awkward or obviously contrived.]
Yet another site suggests:
Bring up another topic from earlier in the conversation. “Earlier you mentioned…can you tell me more about that?”
Boost an ego. “You seem to know a lot about…Could you tell me more about that?”
[Note the repeated suggestions that the politicians should take the initiative to ask questions about the science, while the scientists should seek to be better understand the politics, versus better explain themselves.]
Today I was talking with a friend about this. He listened patiently. But then he said, “Okay, Bill. Scientists and politicians need to change the topic. But to what?”
More on that in the next post.