Seeking your help – to build the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium v2.0

“Our progress won’t be in science alone. It will also be in our ability to make sure everyone benefits from that science”– Bill Gates, (speaking of measures to cope with the pandemic), The Economist, April 25-31 print edition op-ed

The 2020 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium[1]– coincidentally, the twentieth– will be like no other. We could use your help – not just to contribute in the usual way, as speaker or participant, but to (re-)build it. 

To see why, let’s start with today’s quote.

Mr. Gates’ thought is an important one, and apropos – but perhaps not so new. It comes exactly 400 years after this observation from the inimitable natural philosopher Francis Bacon:

“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.”

Bacon’s language is Elizabethan – a bit flowery, to modern ears – but the idea is the same. In the four centuries since, scientists and engineers have given primacy to advancing knowledge, but have also kept one eye on application. 

Societal benefits to any such end-use of S&T begin immediately, with the early adopters, but become consequential largely to the extent they ultimately become widespread – in today’s vernacular, as they scale. (Mr. Gates knows a lot about this: the difference between Bill Gates, hugely bright but otherwise unremarkable guy, and Bill Gates, billionaire and major actor on the world scene, is in the scaling-up.)

Here’s where policy comes in. Nations and peoples find public policies important tools for scaling-up, and for realizing the fullest measure of benefit from science, innovation, and wisdom. The Ten Commandments could easily have been called the ten policies. (It’s wise to provide for parents in their old age – your children, witnessing this, will do the same for you. It’s wise to revere life; to hold marriage sacred; to respect property rights; to tell the truth; and so on. When all of us, or nearly all, buy in – when we do these things, the people are at peace and prosper. As participation declines, the benefits decrease.) The benefits of driving on the right-hand side of the road are greatest when everyone does it. Vaccinations are most protective when widely adopted. Education is most valuable when all enjoy access. Harnessing food, water and energy resources; building resilience to hazards; protecting the environment and ecosystems? These aspirations can be achieved in the face of population growth only to the extent policies foster widespread, expeditious societal uptake of new knowledge and innovation.

For nineteen years the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium has worked toward a simple goal: equip early-career scientists and engineers to be as disciplined (and therefore effective) with respect to engagement in the policy process as they are with respect to their research and development. Scientists and engineers can no longer afford to wing it. World exigencies, and need for scientific input, are too momentous, too complex, too urgent to accommodate any such happy-go-lucky, leisurely approach. Instead, scientists, political and business leaders, and the general public have to work in close, sustained coordination to agree upon and achieve favorable outcomes, anticipate and accommodate for unfavorable unintended consequences, etc. Scientists need to understand that their mathematical equations tend to be silent on how the policy process works – but that the policy process nevertheless has rules. And policymakers do best when they comfortably and intelligently tame and harness science rather than reflexively fight it. Work together, within that framework and those rules, and we can accomplish great things.  In particular, we can see our science and technology applied for widespread societal benefit. And an appreciative society will continue to provide the educational system, funding, and other infrastructure allowing science and technology to thrive.

The Colloquium has used the technique implied in its name: an annual face-to-face colloquya discussion or dialog, between a cohort of some 25-35 early-to-mid-career participants on the one hand, and a succession of speakers and panelists on the other side, extending over a ten-day period in Washington, DC. 

For the first nineteen years, the flow of information has been asymmetric. The scientists are in town to listen and understand – and not least to rid themselves of misguided stereotypes about policy, politics, and life and work in “the Washington swamp.” The speakers and panelists (drawing on years of experience working in the halls of Congress, at the White House, in the State Department, DoD, and other federal agencies, working as corporate contractors to the government, in NGO’s, etc.) are there to impart knowledge. They rid themselves of un-useful stereotypes as well. Most come away with renewed enthusiasm for scientists, especially the early-career variety. But by and large, they’re the ones who “know how things work.” 

This year is different. In prior years, despite perturbations introduced into the policy process by the events of September 11, 2001, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and political dustups accompanying changed hands in the executive branch and Congress associated with each election cycle, the machinery of the policy process could be considered “a given.”

Covid-19 has changed all that. The stress test has exceeded the elastic limit of the prevailing science policy system and process. The Washington professionals at the science-policy-politics nexus know how things once were, but they too are in the dark about how things will change and the new ways things will work going forward. Participants will be meeting with policymakers as both groups are picking through the ruins and trying to figure out what “recovery” looks like. For starters, what will the 2020 national, state, and local elections look like in a time of social distancing? Given the present polarization, will any electoral outcome go unchallenged? How will members of Congress and staff even work in the shadow of the pandemic’s possible resurgence? The nation will naturally and appropriately be preoccupied with the science and technology of disease surveillance, vaccine development, etc. What about budgets for other areas of science in the face of trillions of dollars of new debt, as whole economic sectors, state and local governments, and clamor for even more help? What is the future of the big research universities? The big federal research and science-based service agencies? What will the fall bring for K-12 and higher education? Where are the new workforce needs? What is the outlook for diversity, equity, and inclusion? If policymaking and science are all about relationships (the latter more than some might like to admit), how do we build those in a time of social distancing? These are only the minutest sample of the questions and issues out there.

As a consequence, this year’s Colloquium, more than most, will be about a “common search for truth, ideas” rather than a one-way imparting of information. Speakers and participants will be on a bit more-level playing field. The two dozen folks who’ve signed up to participate this year will be constrained to starting out virtually (we live in hope that we’ll be able to schedule 5-6 days on face-to-face sessions here in DC sometime later in the summer or in the fall, but uncertainties don’t allow fixing a date just yet).

But the potential upside is huge. 2020 Colloquium participants are in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’re going to be present at the creation – better yet, contributing to the creation – of the new post-covid-19 science-policy process. How can virtual platforms best be used to support the conversation? What should be the salient topics, and the best virtual session formats for addressing those? Virtual sessions will also allow more flexibility, better preparation, and as well as more opportunities for extended follow-through. In all these respects, we’ll be redesigning the Colloquium while we’re conducting it.

Your ideas and suggestions for topics, formats, speakers are most welcome and needed. We want input from this year’s participants and speakers: what would you find most helpful? But we also want to hear from Colloquium alumni. What have you found most useful since your participation? What do you think merits special emphasis today? Then there are those of you who haven’t yet participated. Why not? What has been missing from the Colloquia to date that would make a difference as far as you’re concerned?

Please get in touch! Post a comment here on LOTRW, or send me an e-mail. Or better yet, register and participate. It’s late, but we still have a few slots open.

Thanks in advance.


[1]Want to learn more? You’re in luck. LOTRW has focused on the Colloquium before…

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