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Food for Thought: The "Dialogues at Noon" Series

You know you're groping for conversation when you have to talk about the weather at lunch. Well, if you're an atmospheric (or related) scientist, maybe not.

For a change of pace, scientists, students, and nonscientists at UCAR have been convening the last Friday of each month to dine on provocative discussions regarding science policy issues. Called "Dialogues at Noon," the lunch-discussion series is sponsored by the Office of Government Affairs (OGA) and the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group (ESIG). They welcome the entire UCAR community.

This "inreach" activity was begun in January with the goal of bringing our community together to informally talk about science policy. It is designed to be an interactive forum for anyone interested in voicing their views and concerns on these and other issues, or those who just want to listen and learn more about the current trends inside the Beltway. Thanks to excellent leaders who provide thought-provoking questions and hypothetical scenarios while tapping into their own experience, the discussions have been quite lively.

A model model?

Guy Brasseur, director of NCAR's Atmospheric Chemistry Division, led the debut policy lunch at the Mesa Lab in January. This first dialogue attracted over 30 people, hungry to not only masticate, but talk, vent, and listen. It was followed by an encore performance the following month at the Foothills Lab.

"Is Bigger Better?" was the ambiguous headline for the first topic, which was loosely based on the article in The Economist, "A Problem As Big as A Planet" (5 November 1994). Guy focused on some philosophical questions regarding the value of predictive models. Has the science community's effort to understand and control global change research (what the article called "the great global experiment") failed? Scientists' research agenda--to build a comprehensive, predictive model of the physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the earth--should be questioned, according to the piece: ". . . does such model-building really fit with the promise of averting catastrophe?" The challenge, it is argued, is to get hard scientists working together with social scientists.

Is "basic" a bad word?

"What role should 'curiosity-driven' play in our research?" Dave Carlson, Atmospheric Technology Division (ATD) director, asked the 30 or so people at the second "Dialogues at Noon," held in March and April. The topic, "A Balancing Act at NSF: Fundamental vs Strategic Research, Research vs Education Activities," raised problems of semantics. How does one distinguish between strategic and fundamental research? Scientists define "basic research" differently from some policymakers in Washington. Does it have a frivolous connotation to the nonscientific world? "And," Carlson questioned, "should basic research be elevated to a pure ideal?" In the academic community, it's normally seen as positive; in Washington, as Harriet Barker (UCAR vice president for corporate affairs) pointed out, it could have a pejorative connotation.

Tony Delany (ATD) views the term as having chameleonlike qualities. "If someone says, 'Hey, funding's over here!', scientists will conveniently discover their curiosity for and interest in that particular project," defending it as "basic research."

The group also debated the definition of successful basic research. If success is measured by health, prosperity, or national security, how should our research be measured? Does the science community's goal of understanding a problem mark success? Does it meet the nation's goals? Should our research be driven by how it would contribute to society?

And, Dave questioned, what about serendipity? After years of study, graduate school, and research, can an unexpected finding be serendipitous? Is a discovery lucky and unearned?

Anatta (UCAR Communications) reminded the group that some politicians are stoking a public perception of scientists as "intellectual elitists," a perception that needs to be changed. The public, she pointed out, responds to catastrophes and emergencies. When such dramatic events are lacking, we must continue to get taxpayers to buy into our day-to-day work, including "curiosity-driven" research.

Times have changed, many conceded, and holing up in the laboratory, doing one's science, is now an anachronism: scientists must participate in outreach to the public. Dave, for example, became interested in oceanography, in part, because of the National Geographic television specials featuring Jacques Cousteau.

Five score and 15 years ago

"Repackaging the Department." "Bob Walker's Got an Idea." "Who Needs a Department of Science?" Do these recent headlines give you heartburn? Or do you nod your head in agreement with them?

U.S. representative Robert Walker (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Science Committee, is pressing hard for the creation of a Cabinet-level department of science. "A Department of Science: The Pros and Cons" was the timely topic discussed at the June and July "Dialogues" lunches, facilitated by John Firor (director of NCAR's Advanced Study Program) and based on recent testimony given by Rep. George Brown, Jr., (D-Calif.) and Walker.

A department of science is not a new idea, yet it's one that continues to be discussed among science policy experts and politicians. The idea 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 create a Department of Science.

The latest plan--to eliminate the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Education, and Labor and consolidate the science programs left hanging--would throw the latter into one departmental pot. NASA, NOAA, NSF, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey are just some of the agencies which would be housed in Walker's dream department.

John Firor opened the discussion with the question, "What problem are we trying to cure?" Is it duplication of science? Administrative overhead? How big a role is politics playing? The dialogue among the various scientists and nonscientists was lively and vocal.

Some noted possible pitfalls of the idea:

  • Mission impossible? There's an inherent conflict in lumping agencies with disparate missions into one department. As Roger Pielke, Jr., (ESIG) pointed out, NSF is the only federal agency whose primary mission is to do science: "All the other [agencies] have other missions for which science is a means to achieve an end."

  • Priorities. 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?

  • Leverage and decision-making. The consolidation would give a lot of power to a very limited number of people. A science czar would be a powerful person with a lot of influence. The very broadness that the science community aspires to maintain could be compromised when placed in the hands of the very few.

  • Diversity and creativity. These could be affected, warned John McCarthy, NCAR special assistant for program development. "My concern would be that the whole creative process would be filtered out by a bureaucracy and infrastructure that would make science and technology in this country mediocre." Others argued that some good can be achieved from such a structure:

  • High profile. Science would finally achieve greater visibility on the national scene.

  • Appropriation attention. Removed from other agencies, science would receive more prestige in the budget process. Basic research would not have to compete directly with a new Veterans Administration hospital or a public housing project.

  • Efficiency. A department of science would reduce the problem of duplication. A principal investigator would not have to spend his time generating numerous proposals and scrambling to various agencies for funding. One salient point that was discussed was the need to reconsider the traditional path of a Ph.D. student toward continuing his or her career as a university researcher. Warren Washington (Climate and Global Dynamics Division) was among several who noted that too many graduate students are being released to a very limited number of jobs. Instead of each professor/researcher teaching and reproducing 15 others, John Firor suggested that we need to encourage more young scientists to embrace positions in industry.

    OGA and ESIG plan to continue the "Dialogues at Noon" series after a summer hiatus (see below). The list of topics seems infinite. In this environment of austerity, now more than ever the dialogue must continue. --Laura Curtis, OGA

    Because of the upcoming holidays in November and December, the next sessions will be held earlier in the month than usual. They will take place on Friday, 3 November, in the Mesa Lab cafeteria and in the Foothills Lab on Monday, 4 December. The topic will be the U.S. Global Change Research Program; discussion will be led by Roger Pielke, Jr. Watch the Calendar section of This Week at UCAR for future listings.

    Science policy topics are addressed on the home page of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, http://www.aaas.org, which is updated daily. The home page for UCAR's Office of Government Affairs should be available by the first of the year and will be linked to AAAS and other relevant sources.

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    Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
    Last revised: Thu Mar 30 10:56:48 MST 2000