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.
"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.
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.
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:
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.