Archive for the ‘Science Policy’ category

Science and the Law: Why Antonin Scalia is not just wrong, but incapable

August 19, 2009

Update: I’ve corrected the number of dissenters in this case from 3 to two,  Scalia and Thomas, per Jason’s comment; Justice Sotomayor, newly arrived at the court, did not take part in this case.

Upfront:  I’m not a lawyer, nor a regular student of legal matters, Supreme Court jurisprudence or Constitutional scholarship.

But such inconvenient facts should never stop a doughty blogger, so here goes.

Lee Kovarsky, a law professor at NYU, has a very smart guest post up at Obsidian Wings on the meaning of Justice Scalia’s dissent in the Troy Davis decision.  In that decision a 6-23 majority of the Court sent Davis’s murder conviction back to Federal District Court to determine whether new evidence confirms Davis’s actual innocence.  This outcome was genuinely new, the first time in 80 years that the Supremes have granted an original habeas petition, and the decision to pursue this particular line of court authority is itself entangled in Constitutional issues that Kovarsky touches on.

But I’m not here to talk about such legal issues — remember, I don’t know anything about them.  Go read the link as a starting point into the pure law side of the matter if you are interested.

What caught my eye within Kovarsky’s gloss of and response to Scalia’s argument were at least a couple of levels on which science and law intersect in the controversy that Scalia’s claims have evoked.

In brief as Kovarsky tells it, Scalia follows the line of argument laid down by Professor Paul Bator who held that knowing “truth” is in essence impossible, at least within a legal context.  Rather, the best one can ask of a judicial system is that a determination of guilt or innocence emerge from a recognizably consistent procedure.

That is not, as Kovarsky writes, a crazy position.  It even has an echo of sciencey-ness.  (What is blogging for if not to attempt stillborn neologisms?)

Think of the popular plain-language version of  the interpretation of quantum mechanics that holds that what it is possible to know about a quantum system is not the behavior of the system itself.  Rather, you know the what your instruments tell you.  We can state the measurement to the limit of precision of a given experimental apparatus, but not the “real” nature of a wave/particle or whatever.*

But it is, as Kovarsky goes on to argue, an untenable one in light of the impact of modern science on criminal law.  He cites specifically the impact of DNA evidence, though he notes that this is not the only technique that bears on determinations of guilt or innocence, and that it does not in fact apply in the Davis case.

His point, and it’s correct IMHO, is that it is no longer tenable to say that given the imperfection of human knowledge it is impossible for one court to come to a reliable determination of actual innocence, the “he-didn’t-do-it-for-sure” level of knowledge needed for a federal court to overturn a state court determination of fact (as long as there were no fatal defects in procedure).

Turn that convoluted sentence around:  Kovarsky says that Scalia and Bator behind him fail to recognize that we now have ways of really knowing certain kinds of facts.  Scientific advances allow us to state with great (not perfect, but great) authority that, e.g.,  if the relevant  DNA at the scene does not belong to John Doe, then John did not commit that particular crime.

Given the existence of scientific procedures of such relevance to criminal justice, then the old view that human knowledge is so inevitably imperfect as to restrict the concern of appelate courts to procedure rather than matters of fact cannot be accepted.

The tricky part in the argument, at least from where I sit, is the ceding to scientific methods this level of authority.  I don’t disagree — but the claim leads to the second level at which science intertwines with this case.

There is an argument within science — or at least, if not among scientists so much as within the broad area of science studies– about the quality of different kinds of scientific knowledge.

Within science studies there have been the radical views of the contingency of scientific knowledge, of course, which seem to me to be basically a red herring.**  There have been a lot of much more persuasive (to me) work done on the impact of the sociology of scientific life and the economics or political economy of scientific research that do show how the making of scientific understanding is a human activity, prey to all the ills that may attach to our endeavors.  And finally, scientists themselves are deeply aware of the issue of interpreting measurements.  The question of what it is that a given procedure actually tells you is one that comes up in every single experiment.

The point for the court is that for all the sources of uncertainty in science that scientists themselves talk about and guard against in individual experiments and observations, there are, as Kovarsky points out, things you actually know to a satisfactory level of “truth.”  And the use of DNA and other biochemical markers as exculpatory (or incriminating) evidence is one of them.

So, to buy Kovarsky’s argument, as I do, you need to buy the fact that when a scientific procedure returns a result, that result has meaning, one that is determined by a specific context of procedure and, in a sense, community standards of proper scientific process.

And one thing that interests me is that this is not part of the legal culture of knowing.  In an advocacy based system, the quality of your facts is determined by the quality of the argument you can build to defend or destroy claims of “truth.”  That’s a model followed in a lot of pseudo-scientific debates — see the strategies of argument advanced by ID/Creationist types (among whom I don’t think it accidental that one founding inspiration, Paul Johnson, was himself a lawyer), and those offered by climate change deniers.  But its not the core of scientific argument, which has much more of  “did you do it right” quality rather than “you have conceived of this procedure wrongly.”  (Much more, I say, not “exclusively.”)

To wrap up:  one of the trickiest things for a court has to be accomodating itself to real changes in human experience.  Scalia’s position was always, I think, wrong in justice terms.  It hasn’t taken DNA evidence to produce instances of people genuinely wrongly, and as Kovarsky also notes, there is no doubt that on the subsidiary question (perhaps primary to lawyers), state courts are not always reliable repositories of proper procedure.  Deference to the actual flawed courts on the ground is granted on the basis of an image of the ideal courts of law school textbooks — but in practice one of the central premises of the Bator/Scalia position is false as a matter of empirical observation.  In sum:  it is a poor excuse for a judicial system if as a matter of formal principle there is no possible judicial way for a condemned prisoner to establish actual innocence.

But whether or not you agree with that view, it is observably true that human skill at learning facts and patterns of facts about the world has changed enormously over the last four centuries, and at an extraordinarily rapid pace in the last several decades.  That transformation makes Scalia’s position wrong in essential terms as well — we can know things that his view asserts we cannot.  That  is an error that I believe his age, his education and his experience will make it vanishingly difficult for him to correct within himself.

And that leads to the twin editorial points of this story:  scientific advance is not the only but it is a big reason why the premises of Constitutional originalism are shaky to the core.  And Justice Scalia is a man past his time.

*Leave aside here the question of whether any such plain-language descriptions of the “meaning” of quantum mechanics help very much.  I like them, and they help me think about some matters, but I’m sympathetic to a kind of schizophrenic view that we know the quantum world operationally, through experiences that include typing this on a device riddled with quantum physics, and mathematically, in a symbolic language that translates only imperfectly into the kind of statements like the one above.  But here we enter an endless loop of late night dormitory discussions, in which this deponent falls silent.

**I think that studies of, for example, the contingency of class and knowledge do help in historical interpretation — no one, I think, doubts that it is valuable to understand Charles Darwin’s positioning in English and British society in grasping what he did and did not accomplish.  But Darwin’s status as a member of a family clearly lodged within the industrial gentry does not alter the fact that his finches provide a powerful case study of evolution by natural selection in action.  Again, a much longer discussion starts here, and here I get off, at least for now.

Image:  William Hogarth, 1758.

We Are Ruled By Idiots: Susan Collins/Ben Nelson division

February 5, 2009

Update: TPM points out in one of their updates to this story that (a) the list of proposed cuts keeps changing and (b) that this is in fact an effort to secure the votes for passage of the bill.  So on the theory that some bill is better than none, this may be worth the effort.  But the choices still matter, and cutting science and technology and public health when the bill still retains less-efficient tax cuts is folly.  If the 100 billion that the group seeks to cut slashed tax side money at least as much (and much better much more) than shovel-ready spending, then it would be more palatable.  But given the sausage injunction, I’ve toned down the language of disdain below.

From TPM comes this word:  that Senator Collins (R(know nothing)-ME and Senator Nelson (D(who won that last election?)-NE) have come up the almost 80 billion dollars worth of cuts to the stimulus that will somehow speed our transition back into a simulacrum of economic health.

TPM highlighted the 1.4 billion cut in stimulus funding for the NSF — 100% of the total proposed in the Democratic majority bill.  But in fact the proposals are actually much worse than the topline message at TPM indicates.  One thing that becomes clear from reading the details of the Nelson/Collins “compromise” is that these folks just don’t get science. Which means, in essence that they do not get how to stimulate an economy:  you want to spend the money on stuff that not only gets cash into circulation fast (as buying equipment, hiring students and researchers, renting space, paying for telephony and all the rest actually do), but on stuff that will produce more money-making (and spending) activity in the future.

That is to say, science and its applications leads to figuring stuff out that makes a difference in people’s lives.   Tax cuts, by contrast, do so only indirectly, if at all, and at a fraction of the efficiency that comes from actually just hiring people to go out get to work.

What we are seeing here, thus, is an example of the operative definition of neurosis — the repetition of an action over and over again, whilst expecting a different outcome this time — our distinguished representatives, especially almost every Republican (Ben!  What are you doing in such company?) serving  in Congress right now — are effectively residents of Bedlam

So: what is it that that Collins and Nelson et al. can’t quite see themselves voting for:

Starting from the top, at the Department of Agriculture:  Whack $100 million off food research — 100 % of the total proposed.

Next:  $750 million gone from NASA’s exploration budget, half of the proposed total, along all of the 1.4 billion NSF money, as mentioned above.

Next: NOAA gets a haircut to the tune of $422 million, a 35% trim — suck on that Florida and the rest of the hurricane belt, just for starters — while the National Institute of Standards and Technology, one of the most important unknown agencies in the government, loses $750 million, or half of its proposed stimulus funding.

And the hits keep coming!  One billion, 38% of the total, off of the DOE’s energy efficiency/renewable energy research budget — now there’s some forward looking policy!  4.5 billion — big numbers, folks — or 47% of proposed funds for DOE’s EISA energy technology loan guarantee program. That’s money that goes to folks in private industry (get that free market zealots — companies out in the world) to support commercial-potential energy research.  There is a bunch of political-economy debate you can have about how best to do this, but basically this is money spent to reduce our dependence on energy sources that have been the focus of conflict for a long, long time.  Dumb, dumb, dumb!

The beat goes on.  I’m not sure if you’d call this research, but the enriched uranium processing funds get removed altogether, to the tune of 390 mil.  And the DOE Office of Science — which, for those that want to see a nuclear energy future is a major source of research funds — also loses all the proposed stimulus it would otherwise receive, $100 million.

On the next page of the good senators’ proposal, Department of Homeland Security loses all of the 14 million bucks proposed for cybersecurity research.  Damn — why don’t we just tell Bin Laden to get his cryptographers rolling? And this is surely not scientific research, but these deep thinkers want to cut all 20 million from the Interior Dept’s dream of creating a department wide modern computer and financial management system.  Heaven forfend that the goverment might actually be given the tools to run more effectively!

Let’s see.  What atrocities lurk on this page?  How about a 100 percent cut — 610 million — for Department of Eductation disability research.  5.185 billion, 90% of the total sought, hacked off the HHS’s desire to spend money on disease prevention.  It’s somehow better for the economy to let HIV infected folks go untested and, perhaps, remain disease vectors, than it is to spend money, right now, on work that could save people’s lives.

Other people will, I’m sure, comment on the foolishness of many of the other choices — one of my favorites at a time when (a) US physical infrastructure is in pieces, lagging well behind the quality of basic transport in many of our competitors, and (b) when projects that get US citizens out on the roads and bridges building stuff would be a damn good idea (wait for the new jobless claims tomorrow, if you haven’t figured that one out), these Solons seem to think hauling 5.5 billion in discretionary DOT project funds makes sense.

I mean really?  Just to talk for a moment to my neighbors up the highway:  Maine, you need roads and bridges just like the rest of us,  and you could surely use an extension of the rail line up to Brunswick at least (if you make your money off tourism, figuring out how to get tourists past the bottlenecks in the road system might be a good idea.  Just sayin…), and so on and on,=.  With all that, what were  you thinking when you sent your pinnacle of legislative competence back to Washington last Nov?

But I digress.  Add up all the science/medicine/technology spending Nelson and Collins want to eliminate and it adds up to over 14 billion dollars.  That’s a lot of science, technological development and public health, that won’t get done if these two have their way.  And all this is spending that is, to use the mantra targeted, timely, and as temporary as anything else in government.

In the end what I see here is legislative frivolousness.  This isn’t a list that suggests anyone thought about what they were doing or why.  It’s just a bit of Washington “bipartisanship.”  If you want cuts, get rid of the tax breaks that everyone who actually studies the record of such things agree are the least effective way of adding life to our stricken economy, and spend the money on people and things right now.  And if you can do it buying work that will continue to pay off in the future — that might even be good governance.  Perish the thought.

Image:  William Hogarth “The Interior of Bedlam” from A Rake’s Progress, 1763.

Stimulate This: Build the Grid First

November 24, 2008

As everyone in range of youtube now knows, President Elect Obama* is committed to spending what it takes to revive the American economy.  A very welcome development, after months of spending what it takes to transfer risk from the rich to the rest of us.  But still, such ambition does beg a question:  stimulate what?

My basic approach to this question is the obvious one:  pouring money into an economy works to stimulate activity, but it works best if you spend the money on things that have the capacity to evoke more economic activity in their turn.

That is — while there is a new new deal urgency to provide relief to those suffering the worst in this economic downturn (i.e., the jobless and the foreclosed), there is a ceiling to the broader economic impact that such relief can provide.  Take a look at this excellent post by Eric over at The Edge of the American West in which a fisking of John Maynard Keynes’ letter to Roosevelt in 1938 underscores what was understood  then (and still holds true) about the limits of relief as anti-recession policy.  (See also this for an analysis that extends into the role of WW II spending on recovery.)

So if you really want to promote long term economic growth from within a depression/recession, you have to buy some tickets in the game.**  Or, to put it more formally, you have to use the power of government spending to build capital that will in turn prove to be economically useful over a much longer time-frame than the immediate quarter or even year in which the Treasury prints the necessary cash (debt) to round out all those zeroes being talked about in Washington right now.

From where I sit (staring out over the MIT campus), that means spending on projects rich in science and technology — or at least ones that foster the uses of what science and technology produce: ideas and physical things that contribute to human well-being.

So what I’d like to do here is to begin a discussion, if possible, of what we should do with the stimulus process that could be informed by what science and engineering approaches suggest are the best long term investments in the country’s economy.

A couple of suggestions to get us going, then:

For one, there is just a broad based investment in the American research establishment.  It makes little sense to try and pick winners in the next great idea competition; the trick is to fund as many of the best people as you can find and let them come up with ideas that enhance human well-being (and thus produce a lot of economic activity in their wake).

That’s the thinking behind this post (and this follow-up) in which I made a pitch for a major investment in human capital:  paying for the education and early research careers of a much larger pool of young scientists and engineers than we now support.

It’s a good idea in just about any economic climate, and would have some stimulus effect — but in all honesty it falls between the relief and stimulus poles of any future plan.  The need to support young scientists is becoming acute as universities both public and private confront the joys of endowments and state/federal budgets that are under the pressures we all know.  Also, though we will see economic and cultural benefits from the discoveries to be thus enabled, the time frame is a little loose.

For a more concrete idea, try this:  early action on one thing the Obama team has already said it wants:  a new “smart” power grid.

The new grid is a prime example of the sort of stimulus I think we need because, first, it will pay for itself over a reasonable amortization period, given the potential improvement over current losses in the power distribution system.

But more than that, the new grid is crucial because it enables much else that we want to do for economic, environmental, and national security reasons.  We need a dramatically enhanced power transmission system to handle the particular demands on the transport of electricity from the proposed increase in renewable generating capacity in the wind/solar belts of the largely underpopulated middle and southwestern desert portions of the country.

Those places are a long way away from most of the major population centers that will use the power thus generated, which means we need as efficient a grid as possible.  But the issue is more pressing than that.  An industry study [link to PDF] suggests that wind/solar power being less controllable and more irregular than conventional plants, puts unusual demands on a grid.  The one we have now won’t hack it, and it will prove to be a significant design and construction plan to get one in place that can.  See this NYTimes piece for a first cut through the reasons why.

All of which means that funding now for a new grid meets two goals:  immediate classical Keynsian stimulus, with jobs created right here right now, and long term capital investment of the sort that only government can undertake. Think of this as 21st century analogue to the construction of the interstate highway system, without many of the ecological side effects.  A win-win in other words.

(FWIW, as a more direct heir to the road building of both the thirties and the fifties,  I’d love to see an investment in high speed passenger rail that would eliminate the need for air travel on any journey of less than 300 or so miles around the major hubs — the same basic arguments apply, but because the benefits are felt most immediately in regions rather than nationwide, a harder sell).

So over to you, dear readers:  what else should our better part of trillion bucks of new government capital spending buy?

*I still love writing tht.

**The reference is to this old joke.

***Faraday is here both for his contributions (enormous) to the creation of the electric economy and for his yet to be topped line on the reason to support scientific research.  Asked by Prime Minister William Gladstone of what use was electricity, he replied, “Why, sir, there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it!”

Image:  Alexander Blaikle, “Michael Faraday*** delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution,” c. 1856.

More on a Modest Proposal

November 10, 2008

In this post, I laid out a first marker for what the new administration could do for science, calling  for an expansion of support for young scientists and engineers — grad students, post docs and new principal investigators.

For the new PIs, I suggested an increase in the number and shift in the emphasis of what are now called Faculty Early Career Development Program grants, arguing that the availability of no-strings attached discretionary research funds for young scholars would have a disproportionate bang for the buck.

It seems like a no-brainer to me (sorry), but I realize that I didn’t explain clearly enough what I meant by “no strings” after an email exchange with Balloon Juice’s estimable Tim, himself a young scientist at precisely the point in his career I would aim to boost with such an initiative.

Tim told me that he was troubled by my suggestion because he sees a competitive process for funding to be essential.

I agree, and here’s what I did not make clear:  the grants should be highly competitive, and awarded as nearly meritocratically as any selective process staffed by humans can be.  But the criteria for selection should, imho, be different from the common run of federal grants.

Currently 425 early career grants get made each year, with up to twenty getting the honorary distinction of being “Presidential.”

The grant applications require a very specific description of the planned research and educational goals of the grantee.  In exchange, the winners get approximately $80,000/year for five years to advance those goals.

What I’m suggesting is that in addition to these conventional grants we add more — maybe a hundred or even more.  Rather than supporting specific projects or proposed experiments, these grants should be awarded on the basis of demonstrated intellectual excellence — the best arguments pi’s can make for their approach to their discipline and research program.

Once awarded, these grants would be true discretionary money — that’s where the no-strings business comes in.  This is intended to fund the best ideas people can come up with as they do their work, day to day, month over month.

But getting the money — that should be competitive as all hell.

Also, as an addendum.  On my previous post, commenter Upnorth Minnesota asked “Just wondering if you see any place in this incentive plan for people who are thinking, creating, inventing outside the hallowed halls of academe? or is their work to hard to legitimize?”

Two answers:  I can see places for people here in institutions other than universities — but I don’t think that the Salk Institute or the Institute for Advanced Studies, e.g., is quite what you had in mind.  I think that researchers who are both outside the academy and industry are hard to evaluate, unless they take part in the daily life of academic science to the extent of submitting work to peer review, attending conferences and so on.  If someone is actually doing good work at the stages of their careers that I’m talking about here, I find it hard to believe that they could not forge some kind of association with the academy.

(Also as a blunt problem of logistics, you have to house the grant somewhere, and it’s far easier to do so through an institution that is familiar with the mechanics of accounting for federal money than trying to do so on your garage laptop.  Believe me, as an occasionally NSF supported film maker, I know.)

One thing I do believe is that this idea is not appropriate for industry based scientists, even those doing basic research.  The goals and culture of knowledge exchange of commercial labs are appropriately different from those of the academy (though I know the distinction is narrowing in all kinds of ways).  There are pathways for federal funding of innovative or speculative research within the private economy — see the NIH’s SBIR program for an example.

In that context, I’d prefer to see the kind of true blue sky money proposed above reserved for that part of our scientific research community already most licensed to pursue curiousity without regard for specific commercial outcomes — and for all the industry/academy ties that certainly muddy the picture, that still means the university/not-for-profit research world.

Image:  “Boyle’s Self Flowing Flask” Scanned without alteration from Fig. 54 in Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume’s Perpetual Motion, the history of an obsession. Allen & Unwin, 1977, St. Martins Press, 1977. It also appears in Dirck’s books and many other places.

A Modest Proposal: A Science Initiative for the Obama Administration

November 7, 2008

Update: I’ve just submitted a very short version of the thought below to our new President-elect (I can’t tell you how much I like writing that)…which is a way of letting y’all know that the Obama campaign’s vision of participatory democracy is open for business here.

Now the work begins.

As discussed on this blog, perhaps too often, federal science funding for the last eight years has been tough to miserable, with research support ranging from just ahead of inflation to notably behind.  Given what’s going on out there (paging Mr. Lehman….) it’s no one’s idea of a safe bet to assume that the dreamt-of doubling of basic research funds is going to occur anytime soon.

But I’d like to lay down one relatively cheap marker that would, I think, have a significant impact on both the culture and the productivity of American scientific research to a degree disproportionate to the underlying amount of dollars.  It’s not a new idea, and hardly original to me –but seeing as it has been completely out of court for almost a decade, I think it bears repeating, even if it is old news to veterans of the business.

It’s simple:  create a pool of no or few-strings attached new money* to support young researchers and scientists-in-training to create the space to foster creative, even wild-ass ideas.

I’m looking at the three engines of daily research:   graduate students; post docs; and young principal investigators.

The basic parameters:  tuition/stipend support for a lot of graduate students — just to pull a number out of the air, say one thousand per year.  (That’s a lot by some measures, not that many for the country as a whole…but the goal at the cutting edge is to make sure that everyone who can in fact work on that edge has the means to do so.  And the point is not so much the support for the students themselves…it’s the indirect support to the top labs across the country the resource of “free” young top talent would provide.)

Same again for postdocs.  Maybe five hundred here –more numbers out of the air.  Up the grant amount for the support/stipend a bit to include some discretionary funding, enough to get the winners to conferences and around to the labs of potential collaborators.  Again such support serves multiple goals:  launching promising careers, subsidizing good labs, and fostering a network of young talented scientists around the country.

And finally, perhaps most important, get real research cash in the hands of young PIs, in a significant expansion of a program President Clinton established in the ’90s.  Currently, the NSF nominates up to twenty young scientists and engineers for grants of up to $80,000 a year for five years (down from 100k/year under Clinton; remember, the Bush years have not been kind to American science, and hence to long term American prosperity and security).  The White House OSTP makes the final selection, and if you are one of the few, the happy few, you get released from the full burden of satisfying the grant process to support your research at the most critical moments of your career.

I’d like to see that juiced — a lot — given my bet that there are more than a dozen or so young researchers on whom it might be worth the country’s money to risk a bet.

And I do mean bet.  All of this is a gamble. Folks selected for any level of this kind of program will be chosen not based on a track record, but on promise, on evidence of creative thinking.

The other  key to the idea is that the application/nomination process be as simple and as stripped down as possible.  None of these phone-book sized grants proposals.  Brief narratives of the projects; a CV; letters of recs and that’s it.  Not even a budget; these would be either be student/postdoc support, which is what it is, or real discretionary research money: go crazy folks, have a party.

Not every person given such free rein to think and work will rise to the opportunity.  But every scholar and thinker I’ve talked to over thirty years or so who has had the chance just to do the work without worrying about justifying results that have not yet been achieved has described a kind of turbocharging of their thinking that comes as they focus on the ideas, and not the grant writing process.

I know that it  goes against the grain to give cash away without a full case being made for all the reasons a given experiment, a given line of research, is likely to produce useful outcomes within the grant period.  Certainly some of these liberated young researchers will be less effective than others.  But the attempt to make a perfect match between funding and product outcomes can produce such risk-averseness — not to mention an enormous amount of time and energy devoted to the mechanics of the funding process that the outcomes are worse and the efficiency of the money spent is less than desired even if everything works out just fine.  If you want to catalyze big hits, then some failure rate has to be endured.

In any event, measured against the federal budget as a whole, even a very ambitious program of no- or loose-strings-attached grants and researcher support doesn’t add up to that much.  This is the cheap end of the business — and it seems to me that this would be a good place to start creating the sense of intellectual play, of possibility that tell the American research community that it is time to start looking at those crazy-like-a-fox ideas again.

Of course, I work at a major research university that will be scrabbling for funds over the next few years, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?  But even disclosing such damning conflict of interest, I have to say that my direct experience here is that the amount of discretionary funding it takes to enable someone to take a flyer on a cool idea is shockingly small, and potentially transformative.

As a side, and program-self-congratulatory-note, check out this video, made by my students on work supported by a pocket of money MIT biologist Anthony Sinskey.**  It describes what happens when someone finds a way to support a wild goose chase, even against his better judgment.

*That is:  don’t pay for this by robbing the already starved existing pools of research funding in the federal budget.

**This video, made by the rest of my students tells the same story with a different twist. Both are fun.

Image:  Harriet Moore, “Michael Faraday in his Laboratory in the Royal Institution,” nineteenth century.

The Science Vote: An Entirely Unsurprising Endorsement by Your Faithful Blogger

October 29, 2008

The past week or so have seen a number of significant endorsements for Barack Obama coming from moderate Republicans (endangered, yes — perhaps less than a hundred breeding pairs in the wild), and in a few cases, genuinely much further right than those, (see Adelman, Kenneth, self described as not a neo-con, but a con-con.)

Adelman’s endorsement and that of the big dog on the block, Colin Powell, both emphasized the larger question of the qualities of the two men running for President over policy specifics. Adelman even allowed that he disagreed with Obama more than McCain on a point by point basis, but that he nonetheless will vote for Obama “primarily for two reasons, those of temperament and of judgment” — as evidenced by McCain’s erratic lurching during the onset of the financial meltdown and his choice of Sarah Palin respectively.

Those are reasons a national security voter would seize upon, and I agree that they are, or ought to be, sufficient to secure Obama an unprecedented unanimous vote next Tuesday.

But it occurs to me that in my discussions of McCain’s disqualifications for the office he seeks from the point of view of what would be best for American science, I’ve tended to focus on process, on political nuts and bolts, to the partial exclusion of the kind of overarching “quality of his mind” arguments that the Powell and Adelman endorsements emphasized.  See especially this post for what I mean, this, and this besides if you are a glutton for punishment.

So it’s a fact that in all likelihood McCain will gut science spending, and pick winners and loser for reasons outside the judgment of professionals as to the promising areas of pursuit (think of it as executive department earmarks) is amply supported by the evidence.

But the deeper danger for US science research and education that a McCain and Palin adminstration lies with their catastrophic failure to understand what is required to do science in the first place.  They lack the understanding, the breadth of knowledge and experience, the judgment to be stewards of the single national endeavour that matters most to our longterm security and  prosperity.

Why do I say so?  Because that conclusion seems to me by far the most reasonable interpretation of the statements made by Sen. McCain and Governor Palin, both recently and over much longer time frames.

These statements are by now familiar to most folks likely to be reading this blog, so I won’t go into my usual logorrhea here.  But the highlights bear remembering.

John McCain repeatedly, and Sarah Palin very recently confirmed that they do not understand the connection between specific inquiries and broader research programs.  McCain has made a habit of decrying research into bear DNA.  Palin, more catastrophically, recently made insufficiently ridiculed remarks about “fruit fly research in Paris France,” adding “I kid you not.”*

Kidding she wasn’t; celebratory in her ignorance she was.  Not to belabor the point, but if you like the prospects of modern gene-centered research in particular and molecular biology in general, you have to do a ton of research just like the two maligned projects.

Elect Palin and McCain if you want put perhaps the single most fruitful research area in all of current science into the category of things you laugh at because they sound wierd.  This is a case where the two candidates demonstrate that they lack  ability to understand and interpret the connections between particulars and the bigger picture.  I can’t think of a worse attribute in potential Presidents.

Then there is the ability to hold contradictory ideas in one’s head without noticing.  There are too many examples of this to list.  Some of them, I think, merely expedient willed ignorance — think of McCain’s hopelessly impossible budget proposals, with its freeze that isn’t a freeze, a promised end to the AMT, renewed tax cuts for the wealthiest, increases in military spending, stimulus and financial bailout to add to the half-trillion dollar current deficit and a promise to balance the budget in four or eight, or four, or eight years or wherever Douglas Holz-Eakin has left his abacus rightnow.

But others are either truly cynical — lies told to gain political power, again, not a qualification for the office such behavior is intended to secure — or signs of real intellectual blindness.

A simple and obvious case is McCain’s attempt to suggest that he is at once serious about controlling climate disruption and increasing fossil fuel use — see e.g. the gas tax holiday, still promised on his website, and drill, baby drill.  The two categories are incompatible.  You can’t control human impacts on climate unless you create incentives to cut carbon use — that is to say, make the price of fossil fuels go up.  McCain has said he supports a cap-and-trade mechanism to do just that (though one of the posts linked above describes just how hollow a promise that is), but such a mechanism is meaningless in the face of determination to expand the availability and drop the price of fossil fuels.  You can’t do one and have the other.

And promoting such policies, as McCain did just today in Florida, means, just to repeat it, that he is either lying when he promises one outcome or the other, or he simply cannot process the fact that the two policy goals are incompatible.  You choose which explanation you like.  It doesn’t matter.  No such person can be trusted to make sensible decisions about the future of science (or much else for that matter) for the United States.

Again: the point I am trying to make is not that McCain and Palin have articulated bad policies for American science, though they have, but that the way they think, their poor judgment about technical and scientific matters, their lack of capacity to grasp how the actual daily work of science proceeds matter more.  Their willingness to ridicule specific bits of research they don’t understand exacerbates the problem by diminishing the value our culture as whole places on inquiry and discovery.

The bottom line:  a President McCain or, should the plausible succession occur, a President Palin, do not possess the qualities required to nurture the future of American science. Their ascendancy would rob the enterprise of both the hard cash and the oxygen of cultural approbation it needs to survive.

On the other hand, if you care about the ability of the United States to retain its narrowing pre-eminence in scientific and technical research, you would do far, far better to vote for Senator Barack Obama and his Vice Presidential partner, Senator Joseph Biden.

*I don’t mean to say that Governor Palin wasn’t ridiculed for her fruit fly idiocy.  It’s just that she wasn’t derided enough.

Image:  Joseph Wright, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump,” 1768.  Source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202.

Obama and McCain on Climate Change: Who to Trust? Andy Revkin Tells You Who.

October 19, 2008

This post got kind of overshadowed mid- writing by the Powell news today — but on the off chance that issue analysis still matters, Andrew Revkin has an important  piece up at the NYT comparing Obama and McCain on climate change policy and expectations come next January.

Revkin keeps his poker face pretty well intact, but his straight reporting conveys a pretty clear impression:

Obama, though (a) imperfect given the urgency of the situation or (b) politically realistic/pragmatic, depending on where you sit, is likely to offer real and significant policy change for the better.

His opponent, for all that there are some vestiges left of the early 2000s McCain who did seem to take climate change seriously, is much less likely to do so — and he leads a party that remains much more opposed to real initiative in this area than the Democrats.

Revkin conveys this impression as a good reporter should:  by presenting what each candidate says, and then applying at least a first-order reality check to each claim.

Here’s the score card:

1.  As Revkin leads his piece, both candidates agree that climate change is real, human induced, and that the Bush adminstration has dropped the ball on the problem.

2.  Both candidates claim support for a cap and trade bill that would control carbon emissions by setting permitted emissions totals and creating a market for permits to pollute within those limits.

Most if not all economists view cap and trade as a much more dubious means of employing market mechanisms to control emissions than the preferred expedient of setting a carbon tax, thus building the external cost of pollution into the price of polluting goods and services.*

But even within the context of cap and trade, the difference between the two candidates policies are striking.  The key distinction is that Obama would auction permits to pollute (in a manner roughly equivalent to other government auctions of common resources, like the electromagnetic spectrum or resource extraction licenses on public lands), while McCain would not.

Unsurprisingly (at least to this observer), McCain’s position amounts to an enormous give-away to the polluting industries at the expense of the American taxpayer.  Obama captures the wealth that the “resource” of carbon permits would command, enabling him to pay for his promised investment in non-polluting energy research and development and to offset the extra cost of goods and services that must now account for the carbon price with a tax and or deficit reduction.

This all might be moot.  Between the economic crisis and the fact that the American  legislative process leaves a lot of room for folks like Sen. Inhofe to make mischief, a carbon market may still be a long way off.

But the difference between the two policies is a telltale:  McCain’s rhetoric seems environmentally friendly, but his approach is “dirty green” to use a phrase that Revkin quotes.

McCain’s underlying policy thrust sees support of existing industry players as its primary driver.  Obama is not completely innocent of such interest-group politics, but his approach is much cleaner – in the legislative sense as well as the green meaning of the term.

3.  Revkin goes on to note other weaknesses in McCain’s policy.   Revkin writes that  on the stump he’s been weakening his already palsied commitment to emissions targets, that he has a terrible record of voting to support renewable energy, and that one of his major “initiatives” — adding 45 nuclear power plants by 2030 is almost certainly a nonstarter:

Energy specialists say that is a difficult goal because of the high cost — one estimate is that each plant would cost $10 billion — and unresolved questions about where to store nuclear waste. Another issue is the lack of American expertise in building such plants after decades of opposition.

Obama has offered what Revkin calls “muted” support for nukes, as well as for the McCain cure-all, expanded offshore drilling.  But the essence of his approach is technological, running on two tracks:  towards increased energy efficiency, and towards carbon-free technologies for producing energy.

Most important, Obama has repeated stated recently that continuing to spend in these areas is essential in spite of — or really, good Keynsian that he is — because of the current financial crisis/recession.  McCain, for all his lip service to the same ambitions has (a) the above-noted dismal legislative record here and (b) is committed to his hatchet — the spending freeze that will block any major new government initiatives for the forseeable future.

Finally, no post about McCain and a research-centric area of policy would be complete without noting (a) that the broad anti-science theme of GOP-play-to-the-base politics makes it very unlikely that his administration will have the will of the individuals inside it to advance energy research outside the narrow confines of an oil/coal centric approach, and (b) that for all McCain’s stated commitment to increase science funding over his notional terms, the rest of his budget approach leaves no plausible way to do so and meet other commitments that are clearly higher priority for him:  tax cuts targeted at the wealthiest and increased military spending.

Remember the key number:  the size of the deficits he is pledged to eliminate is roughly equal to the sum total of non-defense discretionary spending.  For FY 2007, (the last year for which final figures are in) non-defense discretionary spending totalled $493 billion. The total deficit including both on and off-budget (think Iraq war supplemental appropriations…and look forward to bailout costs) has topped $500 billion each year since 2003.

In that fiscal context, anyone who believes the McCain vague promise to increase federal support for science should take a look at this bridge in Brooklyn I have on offer.  Same for any promises to take on an environmental problem that might actually cost money.

Image:  The Phillips and the Woodford Oil Wells in Pennsylvania, 1862.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Quick thoughts on energy before tonight’s debate.

October 15, 2008

Thanks to Wilco 278 and his invaluable Northern Crude blog.

Wilco caught something I missed, posting last month on the American Physical Society report on energy efficiency.

Here’s a key quote from the report’s executive summary (pdf):

Whether you want the United States to achieve greater energy security by weaning itself off foreign oil, to sustain strong economic growth in the face of worldwide competition or to reduce global warming by decreasing carbon emissions, energy efficiency is where you need to start.

Go here for the press release, detailing the basic prescription contained within the report; here for the accompanying fact sheet.  Get the complete report (pdf) here.

The report focuses on transportation and buildings.  Selections from the recommendations on transport include:

The federal government should establish policies to ensure that new light-duty vehicles average 50 miles per gallon or more by 2030. The specific policies are beyond the scope of this study but could include more aggressive Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, financial incentives such as “feebates” (fees for not meeting the standard and rebates for surpassing it) and carbon taxes.

Vehicle weight can be significantly reduced without compromising safety, resultling in fuel economy savings while reducing traffic injuries and fatalities.

Technologies are available to move beyond the 35 mpg CAFE standard mandated in law by the year 2020. They include further improvements in internal combustion engines; vehicle weight reductions while maintaining vehicle dimensions; and a reasonable mix of vehicles powered by efficient internal combustion engines, diesel engines and improved hybrid technology. The weight of vehicles can be significantly reduced without compromising safety through design and new materials.

Building recommendations include:

Federal and state governments should adopt policies to address the wide range of market barriers and market failures that discourage investment in energy-efficient technologies, especially in the highly fragmented buildings sector, where barriers are especially prevalent. A number of policies have proven effective on a large scale in promoting or requiring investment in energy efficiency in buildings, among them

    1. For whole buildings: building energy codes, labeling, audit programs and financial incentives for purchase of efficient technology;
    2. For appliances, heating and cooling equipment and lighting:  (a) Mandatory efficiency standards in the case of appliances.  (b) Voluntary standards, such as industry consensus guidelines in the case of lighting usage and federally promoted labels (Energy Star, for example) to highlight exceptional efficiency performance in the case of appliances.

Note the key phrase above:  the need for federal action to address market barriers and market failures.  In other words, politely, the truth that dare not speak its name peeks out through a crack in the Washington-reportese:  the ideological commitments that have landed us in the midst of the worst financial crisis in a generation have some ‘splainin to do when it comes to energy (and hence national security) as well.

The report does emphasize that it is delivering good news:  its goals are achievable, resting on the deployment of existing technology, the pursuit of new technology that is within a plausible time-horizon…

But here’s the rub — it will take political will and a shift in the philosophy of governance held by those at the top  to make it all happen.

When watching tonight, and thinking over your ballot-box decision, it might be useful to consider whether the “Drill, baby drill” team is likely to lead such an effort.

Image:  Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion House, installed at the Henry Ford Museum.  Photo licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

The Great Debate and the Death of Science (in the USA)

September 27, 2008

OK — so that’s hyperbole, by a wide margin.

But the one thing that last night’s debate between the irrecoverably mendacious McCain, and the amazingly calm Obama confirmed for me is that the large subset of basic scientific research conducted in the US funded by the government is in deep trouble.  It’s fate is likely worse, by a wide margin under a McCain presidency than under the administration of President Obama, but hard times are coming, folks; start your canning and get to splitting your cord wood.

How did I learn this?  There was actually one piece of policy news made last night, that makes something I’ve argued to be true for a while now blindingly obvious.

As the situationally astute Marc Ambinder pointed out, that bit of news was McCain’s call for a spending freeze in the non-defense, non-entitlement, non veterans affairs rump of government departments.  Ygelsias has already highlighted the economic and budgetary nonesense of the proposal.

To take that idea at face value, a spending freeze would leave intact the budget priorities established over eight years of Bush administration benign and malign neglect of science.  See this post for a brief review of the numbers behind that bleak assessment.

In the linked post, I also argued that McCain’s budget priorities, as laid out in his own words on the stump and on his website required that there would be no new money for science — nothing to reverse the flat or real-dollar drop in federal support for science under Bush (i.e. — the Bush administration has supported funding just keeping up with inflation for most of its tenure, and called for a real-dollar drop in the most recent budget).

In fact, the implications of McCain’s stated fiscal* intentions are worse than that:  to achieve his tax and cost-cutting goals, along with his pursuit of increased military spending, most or all non-defense discretionary spending would have to go, including federal support for science.  That was all before the mortgage-backed-securities (note — not sub-prime, please) mess came along.

As Jim Lehrer noted last night, cleaning up that mess is going to have an knock on impact on the budget.  McCain’s response was an earmark crusade, pursuit of all those government agencies wasting money, and his promise of level funding, barring those increases still promised for defense and veterans affairs — which is, again, a cut when inflation is factored in.

It’s not hard to see, given McCain’s disdain for sequencing bear DNA — a snark repeated last night–that science agencies have reason to fear being deemed wasteful. (It’s true that he does not seem to mind investigating the genetic code of the seal, for what possible reason, I wonder?)

So, should McCain win, the upcoming budget crater will be navigated by a person and a member of a party that together has a history of taking whacks at science.  Given that, I see no reason to doubt that federal science under McCain would suffer not just a freeze, but an dollar number as well as an inflationary hit.

Obama promises better.  In the economic portion of the debate he said

The third thing we have to do is we’ve got to make sure that we’re competing in education. We’ve got to invest in science and technology. China had a space launch and a space walk. We’ve got to make sure that our children are keeping pace in math and in science.

But at the same time he acknowledged the reality:

There’s no doubt it will affect our budgets. There is no doubt about it. Not only — Even if we get all $700 billion back, let’s assume the markets recover, we’ holding assets long enough that eventually taxpayers get it back and that happened during the Great Depression when Roosevelt purchased a whole bunch of homes, over time, home values went back up and in fact government made a profit. If we’re lucky and do it right, that could potentially happen but in the short term there’s an outlay and we may not see that money for a while.

And because of the economy’s slowing down, I think we can also expect less tax revenue so there’s no doubt that as president I’m go doing have to make some tough decisions.

He’ll try, that is; he understands the importance of not eating your seed corn.  But the last eight years of ordinary Bush/GOP (McCain supported) budget profligacy has just been turbocharged, and the blunt reality is that it will be a struggle for any part of the federal discretionary budget to hold its own.

Obama’s point about tax revenues holds for the states as well, of course, so there is not much real hope of any cushioning of the blow, even for public universities, at that level of government.

It gets worse:

Last Thursday or so, I ran into a senior member of the MIT adminstration this week, someone deeply involved in funding and running the research side of the Institute, and he pointed out the obvious:  when the financial system caves and the stock market trembles, private philanthropy suffers too.  So that’s another leg of the science – funding stool getting sawn through as we go.

The net take-home:  hard times are about to get harder for major science research institutions in this country.  That promises, as Sen. Obama acknowledges, to threaten future economic prospects and to undermine our national strength and the ability to project hard and soft power internationally.

And as for what this means for those who value science as a voting issue this November?

Vote Obama, for specific and systemic reasons.

The specific:  even though I think it unlikely science will get an enormous boost, at least in his first couple of budgets, he clearly understands the significance of the enterprise.

The general:  (a) Obama’s economic policies are better than McCain’s, and are more likely to produce more wealth, and hence tax revenue that can be used for federal support for science than those of the opposition.

(b) “a” is no accident:  Democrats have a much, much better record than Republicans as economic stewards by just about any measure of economic performance, from growth, to stock market return, to compressing income inequality.  (Thanks to Brad DeLong for acting as such a prolific one-stop shop for these kinds of data.)

So:  if you like science and want the US to continue looking in to it, just remember:  friends (of science) don’t let friends vote for McCain this November.

*For McCain’s confusion of the terms “fiscal” and “financial” as modifiers for the word “crisis” — and the implications of that error — see this.  It’s important:  while beyond the scope of this post, and probably of this blog’s competence (not that that will stop you — ed.) the mistake reaffirms the suspicion that McCain  has no idea what is happening with the debt/derivative/liquidity crisis and hence would leave the federal response to the problem to some subset of the eighty or so financial sector lobbyists now staffing his campaign.

Images:  Julian Falat, “Snow,” 1907.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Meteor Crater, Arizona. Image by USGS.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Seth Lloyd, Quantum Entanglement, and Why it Matters Whether the President (and VP) Care About Science

September 16, 2008

One of the absolute best things about having a good gig at a place like MIT is that you get the quick word on things like this.

Short form: MIT’s resident quantum engineer Seth Lloyd, best known for his work on developing a functional quantum computer (you can see his mathematics/mechanical engineering course website here, an accessible interview here) has just published a paper in Science that describes a novel and extremely powerful design for detectors and imaging systems that make use of the quantum phenomenon dubbed entanglement.*

What makes Lloyd’s finding more exciting than the usual theoretical description of a hypothetical quantum machine is that Lloyd’s lab has already begun preliminary experiments to develop some of the apparatus needed to buile a quantum entanglement-based analogue to radar, and Lloyd himself is predicting laboratory-based proof of principle experiments within a year.

If the idea works, Lloyd suggests that it should be possible to increase the efficiency of radar systems by as much as a million-fold by using what he has dubbed quantum illumination.

Now partly this is just another very tasty technological idea that may never make it out of the “that sounds cool” file.

But looked at in a larger frame this story takes on a different meaning.

Choosing to fund fundamental research is political decision. It has not been the priority recently: see this post for the details.

To support such research requires a leap of the imagination — the ability to grasp the the fact that while it may not be possible to envision the consequences of answering any given abstract question, you can’t pick the winners in advance of following a line of inquiry through each required step. No one could have anticipated that the mysteries of the hydrogen spectrum could lead over time to the ideas that would ultimately make possible such brave new machines as the one on which I write this.

So to the point I’ve been telegraphing for a while: that in this context, it would help — more, it is vital — that we have a President and an administration that is more than just comfortable with science. We need an administration that actively gets the idea that it matters to the American economy, to its security, and to its culture to support open ended inquiry.

I had intended here to go into a lengthy argument about why John McCain and his people do not get it.  But I find that in the couple of days it has taken me to get going on this post that I can outsource most of what I would have said to Devilstower over at Daily Kos.

There, DT takes a swipe at McCain’s self-described science credentials in the candidates’ reply to Science Debate 2008’s 14 questions.  The post doesn’t do a complete fisking of that profoundly cynical and vapid document, but it gets to the essence of McCain’s completely instrumental view of science by teeing off on the Senator’s claim that

I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution. While in the Navy, I depended upon the technologies and information provided by our nation’s scientists and engineers with during each mission.

As Devilstower points out, the fact that someone used technology forty years ago hardly counts, either way, as a qualification for leadership in the advance of technology.  More on point, someone who sees the role of science as simply producing the next widget misses what really goes into the development of ideas that yield major technological advance.  Who knew that an oddity in the behavior of paired photons might yield, — and soon — the kind of advance that could save the life of an American flyer, sailor or soldier?

Much has been made — and I’ve helped a little — of McCain’s email incapacity, of his bare “awareness” (his campaign’s word) of the internet.  But poking fun at a chisel and slate old guy misses the real issue here.  It’s not that McCain doesn’t use the latest technology; it is that he and his incurious advisors do not know what it took to make the possibility of email, of our whole modern, enwebbed world possible.**  And that’s no good in a President in 2008.

*Here’s a cartoon description of entanglement, glossed out of this Wikipedia entry on the subject: Any one particle in an entangled pair (or larger system) cannot be fully described without accounting for the other member or members of the system, even if the other particles are widely separated. Thus, a local observation of one particle can reveal information about certain physical characteristics of phenomena out of sight (or detection) of the observed part of the system.

**Please note that we get to this point in the argument without even mentioning the active anti-science strand in McCain’s campaign:*** you can’t avoid the fact that he choose a running mate who denied human involvement in climate change (before backing down a day or two ago, with a level of sincerity I beg leave to doubt) and who does not credit evolution as the explanation for biological origins and development.

***Not to mention the problem that McCain’s budget priorities leave essentially no room for any non-defense discretionary spending, rendering all the promises made in the Science Debate 2008 replies for increases in research funding essentially unfulfillable unless he is lying about his tax and defense priorities.