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Washington Update

Food for thought

By Laura Curtis
Office of Government Affairs

In these times when the purposes, directions, and funding of science seem beleaguered on all sides, scientists need to be informed on policy trends and issues, form a consensus, and make it known to the public and policymakers. A series of informal discussions at UCAR makes a strong beginning in this direction and might serve as a model for others in the UCAR community.

Since January, scientists, students, postdocs, and nonscientists have been convening on the last Friday of the month for informal lunchtime discussions of science policy issues. Called "Dialogues at Noon," the series is sponsored by the UCAR Office of Government Affairs and the NCAR Environmental and Societal Impacts Group. It is open to anyone in the UCAR community who is interested in voicing views and concerns on the topic of the day, or who just wants to listen and learn more about the current trends inside the Beltway. The discussions have been well attended and lively.

The debut topic, "Is Bigger Better?" was loosely based on an article in the Economist, "A Problem as Big as a Planet" (5 November 1994). The discussion evoked philosophical questions about the value of predictive models and whether the effort to build a comprehensive predictive model of the physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the earth can really fulfill the promise of averting catastrophe. The challenge, it was argued, is to get physical and social scientists working together.

"What role should 'curiosity-driven' play in research?" was a question that occupied the discussion for two consecutive months. The selected topic, "A Balancing Act at NSF: Fundamental vs. Strategic Research; Research vs. Education Activities," raised the problem of semantics. How does one distinguish strategic and fundamental research? Does basic research mean something different to scientists, policymakers in Washington, and the nonscientific world in general? Should basic research be elevated to a pure ideal? And how is its success defined? If success is measured by health, prosperity, or national security, how should our research be measured? In the science community, the goal is understanding, and its achievement marks success. Does this meet the nation's goals? Should our research be driven by how it would contribute to society? Times have changed, many conceded, and holing up in the laboratory, doing one's science, is an anachronism today. We must participate in outreach to the public.

"A Department of Science: the Pros and Cons" was the timely topic discussed at the June and July "Dialogues" lunches. A department of science is not a new idea; it dates back to the 1880s, when members of the House and Senate met in a joint commission to give the concept its first serious consideration. Between 1958 and 1977, some 50 proposals were introduced to (again) create such a department.

Now, Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Science Committee, is pressing hard for the creation of a cabinet-level department of science. The current plan would eliminate the departments of Energy, Commerce, Education, and Labor and toss the science programs left hanging into one departmental pot. NASA, NSF, NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey are just some of the agencies that would be housed in Walker's dream department. He promises that only 5,000 jobs would be eliminated and $2.1 billion would be saved over a seven-year period.

Subsequent discussion listed the following reasons against such a department:

  1. Mission impossible. There's an inherent conflict in lumping the various agencies, with disparate missions, into one department. NSF is the only organization that has a mission to do science; for the rest, science is a means to an end.

  2. Everyone's pet program cannot be top priority, so some programs will inevitably lose to other projects. What criteria will be used to rank the importance of the proposed projects?

  3. It would put a lot of power in the hands of a few, compromising the very broadness that the science community aspires to maintain.

  4. Diversity and creativity would be filtered out of the process.

In the "pro" column:

  1. There would be greater visibility for science on the national scene.

  2. Science funding would have its own niche in the budget process. Basic research would not have to compete with a new VA hospital or a public housing project in Chicago.

  3. One-source shopping for funding would reduce duplication.

These summaries reflect the willingness of the science community to tackle very complex nonscientific issues. The policy series at UCAR will continue; topics seem infinite. If you can encourage others throughout your institution to engage in such dialogues, the science community as a whole can build an even stronger and united voice, which will be heard at your university, in your state, and in Washington. To generate new ideas is not enough; we need to take them forward to a public venue to reach the decision makers in Washington. New, multidisciplinary, cross-boundary thinkers are needed to meet the challenges ahead. For ideas on science policy topics, check the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) home page at http://www.aaas.org. The UCAR Office of Government Affairs is constructing a home page that will be linked to AAAS and other relevant sources. In this environment of austerity, now more than ever, the "dialogue" must continue.

Laura Curtis can be reached at 303-497-2106 or lcurtis@ucar.edu.


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