If Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then … :
“Scientific advisory committees occupy a curiously sheltered position in the landscape of American regulatory politics. In an era of bitter ideological confrontations, their role in policymaking has gone largely unobserved and unchallenged. …” (1990, The Fifth Branch, Chapter 1, Rationalizing Politics; 2009 Interview with Professor Jasanoff)
The first chapter of The Fifth Branch is something that I think that all managers of science in the U.S. Agencies should read. The book, quickly and compellingly, describes the role of scientists in the U.S. political environment. There are references to and case studies of many instances where scientific investigation is motivating and informing policy. There are examples from environmental science, from waste management, and from approval and management of prescription drugs. The book makes it clear that if scientific investigation suggests a need to change, to regulate, or to restrict a certain practice or behavior, then there is a response to oppose that change, that regulation, or that restriction. The depth and vigor of the opposition depends on the wealth and power of those who perceive themselves as impacted; there is often the funding or the advocacy of “opposition science.”
As part of the opposition, there is the tactic of searching for, finding, and amplifying any weaknesses or indiscretions of the scientists. Occasionally, there is revelation of true fraud. (Previous blogs on all of this are listed at the end.)
Building off of the opening sentences quoted above, since 1990 bitter ideological confrontations have become more bitter. There is little evidence that this trend will change until some sort of catastrophe forces the change. The evolution of political tribalism has entrained the scientific advisory panel into politics and brought the role of the scientist out of obscurity.
As background, Professor Jasanoff describes the Fourth Branch of the U.S. government as the Agencies, which have evolved to carry out the functions of the government. This includes the pursuit of scientific investigation for the benefit of the country. These agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NASA, are formally in the Executive Branch. There are political appointees in the agencies, and there is a standing force of civil servants and associated private-sector contractors. The agencies fund research outside of the government. The staff and longevity of the agencies gives them a life that extends far beyond the term of any particular President. (these are perhaps D.H. Lawrence’s “… good sort of society of people in the government who are not tip-toppers, but who are, or would be, the real intelligent power in the nation: people who know what they’re talking about, or talk as if they did.” Lady Chatterly’s Lover)
In February I wrote that in the absence of comprehensive policy to address climate change in the U.S. the 2007 Supreme Court Decision that allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon dioxide becomes more important. As the EPA plans to move forward with the authorization to address carbon dioxide as a pollutant, some legislators are moving to block the EPA. ( see also) This is a classic political push and pull, with the argument that the regulation power of the agencies is out of the hands of voters, because the agency is not an elected representative (see Wall Street Journal Review and Outlook) Interestingly, the sponsors of the bill are, in fact, bipartisan, which shows the ultimate rule of their constituencies, which include coal mining, automobiles, and oil.
If there is any doubt that climate science has moved from a discipline of science to, de facto, an element of politics, then Senator Inhoff’s Minority Report should remove that doubt. Aside from amplifying the political positions about the EPA in the previous paragraph, this report implies the criminal investigation of a set of scientists involved in the IPCC Assessment Reports. The increasing role of point-of-view journalists and public relations professionals is discussed in this The Daily Climate Article. These are disruptive and, often, intimidating political tactics in the tradition of, well, unsavory participative politics. (see also, Climate Science Watch).
All of this has motivated a series of open letters by Ben Santer. The last in the series is an eloquent statement that the sustained political attacks does not stop the fact that the Earth will warm, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. (Santer’s Open Letter # 6, The List of 17).
What’s the purpose of my article?
At this point we have established that, going forward, “climate change” is a political issue, and it is subject to both the well founded and the pernicious aspects of the political process. This is nothing new; in fact it is ancient. Scientific investigation has challenged, with dire consequences to scientists, that the Earth is at the center of the universe and many other tenants of nations, religions, and corporations. The ramifications of their investigations rarely enter the minds of young people motivated by the scientific process. Therefore, not only are scientists not well positioned to participate in the realm of bitter ideological confrontation, scientists are, I assert, by both training and predisposition, easy foils for savvy political strategists.
This leaves the scientist in a lose-lose situation. They are required to defend themselves, but their self-defense perpetuates and amplifies the political confrontation. The confrontational process is not one, as one of my readers more eloquently stated, where we are looking for knowledge-based reconciliation of an issue. Knowledge-based reconciliation is the scientific instinct.
The knowledge that this is a political process that has been repeating itself for centuries, that there is always a community motivated by factors other than knowledge, and that we are in a world of nuanced language of words like “consensus” – this knowledge, derived from social scientists, does offer strategies. First the scientists need to think, individually and collectively, that their responses are, by definition, political. We need to adopt a position, not of defense or isolation, but to do no damage. In a political process certain individuals evolve to the point that there is nothing they can say that serves to advance their position. Nothing. I have been there. This is a difficult-to-accept powerlessness. There is a need to learn, at times, to be quiet – to do no damage.
There are other voices in the community of science, and their voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us. There are voices outside of the community, from other fields, those who study the process of science, those who are impacted by the results of scientific investigation, those who use the results of investigations – these are powerful, independent, and supportive voices. They provide informal external review; they could provide formal, external review.
There are organizational steps we can take. In the United States we need to use our principles of checks and balances to have different organizations that generate science-based knowledge from those which use it – perhaps a provider-customer relationship. Or for the scientist, setting up a “validation process” that is independent; an organization that affirms value. This would help to break the perception of a conflict of interest, where scientists are often viewed as both provider and customer. As a matter of practical policy, scientists are pushed into this position by the requirement that “they prove what they have discovered is important.” (If we develop a Climate Service, this service should NOT be responsible for the use of the information they provide, for example, climate adaptation. Perhaps we need an organization made up of Agriculture, Interior, the Centers of Disease Control, etc., that are users of the Climate Service.)
We, scientists need to learn, better, that scientific knowledge is used and misused in both the political process and in all forms of decision making. And that misuse is part of the process – knowledge, once released, is no longer controlled. We need to learn that uncertainty is part of all decision making processes, and that systematic reduction of uncertainty in a complex problem like climate change is not the natural evolution of investigation. We need to learn that promising reduction of uncertainty is both scientifically and politically naïve.
Most of all, there are those, and this is perhaps what is really happening, what the majority will do – there are those who will take the knowledge that the Earth is warming, sea level is rising and the weather is changing and act on it. They will think about the investments of their companies, the management of our resources, and the incremental development of policy, that will take advantage of the tremendous and unique opportunity offered by the projections of climate change.
And here is