Stepping back from the cliff… continued.

“…With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” – Abraham Lincoln (second inaugural address)

(picking up where the last post left off) Occasional differences aside, Congress and the science community need to work together. There’s no Plan B. No room for any involved in the current confrontation between Congress and science to harbor ill-will – there’s room only for respect, trust – and, yes, even love. No need to yield on our sense of what’s right. That’s a bridge too far. But do move on from standing on that righteousness to the task of reconciliation and rebuilding for former friend and foe alike. Make peace and unity between science and the Congress in common service to the public our aim.

In short, that’s Abraham Lincoln’s advice for members of Congress and scientists who find themselves in today’s standoff.

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What might that look like in practice? The participants are of course the ones best positioned to see what steps would be possible, helpful – and to choose the best timing. There’s no single right answer, and they need no help from the sidelines. But while those actually engaged ponder some of their options, here are a few, admittedly unimaginative ideas. They fall in two categories: short-term immediate actions for both Congress and science – and longer-term goals both parties might pursue. (Your additional/more creative ideas are needed and welcome.)

Short-term action by Congress. Withdraw the subpoena(s). This would not only clear the air. It would also free up an enormous overhang of labor that both sides can ill-afford and that threaten to distract them from the real job at hand: pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, and formulating the policies that will harness the new insights for public benefit. With no threat of subpoena in the air, NOAA scientists could turn back to urgently-needed research instead of trying to inventory and reconstruct the salient materials. Congressional staff wouldn’t be consigned to waste hundreds of stupefying person-hours sifting through subpoenaed records, very few of which at best would prove even marginally useful. Both sides could allocate some of the time saved to face-to-face dialog. They could review the misunderstandings and mis-communications that led to the most-recent confrontation, and brainstorm on how to move forward and avoid such missteps in the future.

Short-term action by science. Identify ways and means by which scientist dialog with lawmakers could become more genuinely non-partisan. Scientists can’t and shouldn’t pull back from critical research on the connections between natural resource use, resilience to hazards, and protection of the environment and ecosystems. The need for advancing knowledge and understanding on these subjects is more urgent than ever. Scientists should indeed draw satisfaction from the potential of this work for informing policy. But in this arena, the divide separating science-for-policy and science-for-politics is today razor-thin. Scientists might benefit from more proactively seeking to engage political leaders of all persuasions.

Each of these short-term steps make more sense when viewed in the longer-term context:

Long-term action by Congress. Walk back efforts to constrain certain lines of scientific research. The allocation of resources for science is an inescapable Congressional responsibility. It’s accomplished annually through budget appropriations for the mission agencies such as USDA, DoC, DoD, DoE, DoI, EPA, NIH, etc. Each of these annual allocations is a policy statement; the entire process has always occurred within an envelope of discussion and debate. But in recent years, a new overlay has been added: efforts to micro-manage allocation of resources within the National Science Foundation, which for decades has been the primary source of funding for basic research distributed across all the disciplines. Specifically, the geo-sciences and the social sciences have been singled out for cuts.

But the fact is, economic studies through the years have uniformly concluded that top-down government efforts to pick winners and losers among research fields or economic sectors rarely if ever succeed[1]. Instead, what’s worked best has been to allow scientists – those engaged in research on the ground – to identify the most promising avenues for exploration. Similarly, allowing domestic and international market forces to shape economic development, versus impose top-down government subsidies and disincentives, has proved far more sustainable than public-sector interventions in these markets, however well-intended.

Long-term action by science. For their/our part, scientists could begin by taking a clear-headed look at why geosciences and social sciences have been targeted in the first place. The language behind the cuts has been carefully couched in terms of perceived weak contributions to innovation, relative to fields such as other branches of physics and the life sciences and biotechnology. But it seems more likely that the reluctance to fund such science comes from another quarter.

The reality is that politics has weaponized this research. Each new finding in the geosciences has been used (and abused) by one side or the other – and sometimes both – to gain leverage in policy debates on energy, food, water, hazards, public health, and environmental protection. Social science findings add an overlay: the implications of policy choices in the geosciences for social justice, income inequality, allocation of risk, and more. These topics are politically charged to say the least. Congressional leaders might be forgiven for seeing scientific advance in these fields as akin to an arms race, and grow weary of the escalation.

Scientists are right to say (a) this is wrongheaded, and (b) that scientists aren’t positioned to prevent this. But we can do more than simply curse the darkness. In particular we might be more circumspect about adding fuel to these flames.

It’s natural that we often try to engage in both the science and political arenas. We justify this something along the following lines. In my work as a scientist, I adhere to a certain ethic: painstaking care with respect to methodology, to observation, experimentation, theoretical interpretation, and statistical analysis. No falsification or cherry-picking of data, etc. Transparency in analysis and modeling. Even-handed attention to all possible interpretations of my findings. Rigorous self-criticism backed-up by thorough peer review. (and much, much more). But I am not just a scientist; I’m first and foremost a citizen, like everyone else. Outside the laboratory, therefore, I am free to go beyond the science, to discuss what I see as the political and social ramifications of my work, so long as I clearly profess at every turn that I am merely exercising my rights as a private citizen and not claiming any special weight derived from scientific expertise.

Our rights as citizens? Indeed. But if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that these boundaries are fuzzy in practice, what should be bright lines are easily blurred, frayed, especially under questioning by politicians or news media. We might also concede that in our “citizen” role it’s easier to preach to the choir than to those of different persuasions. If therefore we’re sensitive about appearances as well as substance, we might be more cautious about claiming those rights.

This might appear too burdensome, unnecessarily restrictive. But there is a class of our citizenry that operates under just such a stricter set of rules, largely self-imposed. They seem to have made a success of it. They might have something to teach us.

More in the next post.

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[1]It’s football season, and so it might be worth noting that coaches have reached the same a lesson to teach us as well. They never draw up defenses that leave one or two members of the opposing team unguarded; they know that’s a prescription for disaster.

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1 Response to Stepping back from the cliff… continued.

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