“Honesty is the best policy.” – Benjamin Franklin
“I never had a policy. I just tried to do my very best each and every day.” – Abraham Lincoln
“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” – Ronald Reagan
This evening, the 2015 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium gets underway. For the next ten days, some forty early-to-mid-career science professionals from the ranks of industry, academia, and government will meet with Congressional staffers, White House and State Department staff, as well as leaders of federal science agencies. Colloquium participants will dialog with science reporters, leaders of NGO’s including the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and with each other. They’ll work through case studies and group exercises. In this way, they’ll be taking an important step towards becoming as disciplined in their approach to policy as they are with respect to their science and engineering. They’ll come to understand the distinction between public policy for science and the use of science to develop public policy. They’ll realize that their mathematical equations are truly silent on the policy process, but that the policy process too has structure and rules. They’ll see that if they know, respect, and honor these rules, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish, but if they ignore the realities of the policy process, they’ll not only get what they deserve but inflict harm on our country and diminish our future prospects. This year’s participants will be joining the ranks of some 500 scientists and engineers who’ve gone through the program since its inception in 2001.
Why has the AMS and its community of 13,000 professionals sustained this multi-year investment in leadership development? The answer lies in AMS’ basic purposes: advancing scientific knowledge and understanding and harnessing those advances for societal benefit.
For most of our (nearly) 100-year history, the key to these goals lay in improved science and technology. Today, the challenge in equal measure derives from application. How can the United States – and for that matter, the peoples of the world – realize the fullest return from atmospheric and water resources and their contributions to the production of food and fiber, as well as solar-, wind- and other forms of energy? How can we most effectively build resilience to extremes of nature – ranging from cycles of flood and drought, winter cold and storms, warm-season hurricanes, thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes, to earthquakes and tsunamis? What measures are needed to protect irreplaceable ecosystem services provided by the landscape, habitat, and biomass and diversity on which we depend? We can use more science bearing on these questions, but we can also make better use of the science we have in hand.
The key to such effective use lies in public policy.
Scientists might be excused for seeing this largely in terms of funding levels for science. Today’s policies for federal investment in science generally, and the allocation of those resources across disciplines, will indeed shape U.S. innovation for the next quarter century. But that is only the beginning of the story. Our national, state, and local-level policies toward K-12 education are equally important, as are the policies determining the costs of and access to higher education. So are our policies toward immigration, especially the immigration of technically-skilled students from abroad who aspire to study and then pursue careers in the United States.
Deregulation of electricity generation and development of regional power grids increase the value of hour-by-hour local forecasts of sunshine and wind. Regulatory requirements that the operation of dams on watersheds be determined solely by present (vs. anticipated) water levels in reservoirs reduces to zero the value of precipitation forecasts over the next few days to weeks. Emphasis on evacuation in the face of hazards versus improved land use and engineering to reduce the need for evacuation combines with a culture of “rebuild as before” to condemn us to repetitive loss to natural hazards. Principal-agent focus on regulations separating public agencies from the private sector work well day-to-day but inhibit the ability of government and private enterprise to collaborate strategically on national challenges.
And that’s only the beginning. In the interconnectedness of today’s society, our greater national hopes and aspirations — for individual liberty, for representative democracy, for equal opportunity, for meaningful employment, for greater health and democracy, and quality of life, and national security – are all intertwined with policy for science and science for policy.
Plenty to ponder over the next ten days!