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:
Laura Curtis can be reached at 303-497-2106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.