Archive for the ‘Science Policy’ category

The End of Climate Science (and much more besides) in the Commonwealth of Virginia

May 2, 2010

Via Doug J, who got it from Thers, this report out of Virginia tells of the assault on (a) climate science and (b) academic freedom at the hands of Virginia’s new and very dangerous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

The report itself is a bit annoying — it refers to a “smoking gun” coming out of the so-called climategate emails, for example.

That would be the smoking gun widely trumpeted by denialist blots (I actually like that typo, as I look at it, though I do mean “blogs”), and credulously repeated by some in the traditional mediahat has so far failed to materialize in two actual reviews so far conducted into the affair.

But perhaps the most insidious implication of Cuccinelli’s demand for…

…any and all emailed or written correspondence between or relating to Mann and more than 40 climate scientists, documents supporting any of five applications for the $484,875 in grants, and evidence of any documents that no longer exist along with proof of why, when, and how they were destroyed or disappeared….

…is that I can’t see how this doesn’t ensure the Virginia’s public universities will be unable to recruit top talent not just to climate studies, but to anything that could be imagined to deviate from the proper political line.

Anyone good enough to attract any other offer would be nuts to accept a publicly funded research job in the Commonwealth:  who knows when every three a.m. frustrated email may yet serve to identify your disloyalty to the Soviet the Attorney General’s office, or the legislature, or the Guardians of the Faithful the Virginia Republican Party.

Seriously, no snark at all: science has certain norms. High, really chief among them, is the commitment to free enquiry.

The reason is, or should be obvious:  once you start telling folks which answers are acceptable and which are not, you’ve just told those scientists under your power that they can’t think without thinking first whether those thoughts are acceptable.

And another thing: Cuccinelli may think he’s just stuffing climate change back in a box where it belongs.  He may actually hope that hounding Mann may scare others off from daring to probe temperature records, or increasingly detailed global models or what have you.

He probably has, in fact, at least in VA.  As noted above why would any atmospheric scientist, any geologist any planetary scientist whatsoever want to risk the career trashing experience of a full-on state-sponsored attack on your work, your records, your colleagues and students — just the time, years perhaps, lost to demonstrating to the political officer the orthodoxy of your views would be intolerable.

But why stop there:  how much of biology falls afoul of one unshakable principle or another?  I’m not sure Ken Cuccinelli knows how much of molecular medicine turns on evolutionary biological ideas, but the researchers know, and they may well wonder what part of that work might suddenly fall afoul of the legislature or law enforcement.

The long and the short of it:  I know that if I were the department head of research departments at major universities, I’d be eyeing Virginia’s schools with a view to poaching top talent.  If I were a young scholar being recruited by Virginia, I’d look at all my other options — even if one imagined that the crazy would never envelope, say, a lab studying quantum dots, who wants the aggravation?  Who would want to work at a place where a fair number of your colleagues are cowering, hoping that the wrath of the AG never descends on them?

I believe the technical term is a chilling effect.

And above all, if I were an aspiring graduate student with chops — why on earth would I think of signing on to a place where I never could know if or when my lab would shudder under siege for years in some know-nothing’s crusade?

I love Virginia.  I’ve got some family down there; U. VA is one of the nation’s historical and architectural jewels; the place is beautiful and so on.

But none of that pays the rent, or creates the environment in which killer labs do great work (and, in many fields, spin off ideas that turn into companies and useful things that lead to the betterment of the human condition).

The impact of this latest nonsense won’t be felt all at once…and if the pushback is really vigorous, it may not be nearly as dire as I’m imagining it now.  But it doesn’t take that much to turn a first rate research institution into something much less impressive.  And Cuccinelli is sure doing his best to set that process in motion.

A parting thought: not to go all quasi Godwin on you, but for a more extreme example of what happens when you go down this road, you might find Loren Graham’s underappreciated book The Ghost of the Executed Engineer instructive.  It tells the story of the most significant victim of Stalin’s cleansing of the ranks of his engineers of any deviant thought.  After that job was done, the Soviet Union continued to turn out extraordinary numbers of academically trained engineers.  They just weren’t much good, most of them.  The consequences of being too good were too obvious.

Image:  Fra Angelico, St. Lawrence before Valerius, c. 1440

The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy.

January 5, 2010

Read this article in the New York Times.*

Here’s the gist of what it’s talking about in this effort to piggy back on national technical intelligence gathering tools (satellites, remote sensing, etc.):

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests….In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The investigators tout the access to data that can be acquired in no other way; they note its economic significance (ice forecasts, aids to oil and gas exploration; and the article also notes that the CIA itself has perceived a national security concern in the prospect of climate change.

And with that, here’s the gist of what I want to talk about:

In October, days after the C.I.A. opened a small unit to assess the security implications of climate change, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said the agency should be fighting terrorists, “not spying on sea lions.”

and

The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

It is unclear why Medea died in the early days of the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives. Officials said the new body was taking on the same mandate and activities, as well as the name.

Perhaps the problem is that the scientific opportunity was and is immense.  Among the most difficult elements of the climate system to study is the cryosphere — the ice covered portions of the earth’s surface.

Understanding ice dynamics, especially those of sea and polar pack ice, is an essential component in coming to grips with a whole range of important issues in climate change:  the rate at which it is occurirng, the sensitivity of the climate system to various forcings, the risk of rapid alteration in parts or the whole of the global climate system.  (See as one example among a ton of such research, this paper picked up at random through the magic of teh google.)

If therefore, your political advantage rests (a) with a denial of the usefulness of expertise, of verifiable knowledge combined with the training and skill needed to interpret the data and (b) with economic interests for whom the reality of climate change is costly, what should one do but shut down a cash and risk-free program that would help us grasp the predicament of the planet.  Better a joke about sea lions than inconvenient truths.

And by the way: for all those who say Obama is no different from the guy, consider this:

The Obama administration has said little about the effort publicly but has backed it internally, officials said. In November, the scientists met with Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director.

“Director Panetta believes it is crucial to examine the potential national security implications of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels and population shifts,” Paula Weiss, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Elections matter.  They matter in this country now more than ever.  And if you care about science — and I don’t mean just funding levels, but rather the ideal of science, the notion that living a good life includes notion that it is better to know what’s going on than to dream of sugar plum fairies — then the difference between the two parties in their approach to science is existential.

None of this “they’re all alike…I’ll vote for Nader” sh*t, in other words.  We have work to do this and every year.

*I dump on the MSM with reasonable regularity.  I’m working on one of my several thousand word screeds about the Times’ own David Brooks right now.  But it’s important to remember how big media institutions matter — and encourage them to do more of what the informal media can’t.  This is an example.  The article turned on a reporter’s ability to access both very high level science sources (Ralph Cicerone is a seriously good get, for those of you without scorecards handy) and with at least some kind of hook into the intelligence community.  That takes institutional support to develop sources and an understanding of your beat.  So kudos to reporter Bill Broad, one of the Times’ long lasting good ones, and to the great grey lady formerly of 43rd St. herself.

That kind of knowledge/access can be acquired from an independent base — but it’s very hard and it is what the big media at its best distinguishes itself by achieving.  If only places like the Times, and even the Post, long since returned to its roots as the house organ/gossip rag for DC, understood that the one real unique asset they have is reporting other people can’t do because they lack the scale and institutional memory to do so.  That’s a barrier to entry no amount of internet servers can bridge.  Go there, my friends.  We need you to do so, and you can make money there.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wreck in the Ice Pack” 1798.

Live Blogging President Obama’s Energy Address At MIT

October 23, 2009

Star studded crowd.  Gov. Patrick, Sen. Kerry, and local congressman Mike Capuano are here.

12:45:  Obama takes the podium.  Wild applause.  This is Obama country.

First words:  Thank you MIT!

In joke:  “I’ll be here a while.  I understand a bunch of engineering students have put my motorcade on top of Building Ten.

Reference image:

12:49:  Politician shout outs are now over.  Now the president is touting all the lovely things being done at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).  Makes the link to the notion of Americans as innovators willing to take risks on projects that might fail — and on the US as a place willing to support such efforts.

References Lincoln’s move during the Civil War to establish Land Grant Colleges; Roosevelt’s signing of the GI bill; after Sputnik, US invests in space technology….

So, the claim is being made that we have always been about innovation; that ambition is “in our DNA” — a phrase I understand and loathe.

But now — the economic challenges are huge.  “Economy in which we all share opportunity is one in which we all share crisis.” Said in context of globalized economy.

Says:  Energy that powers our economy also undreminse our security and threatens our planet”

12:53  Nation that gets to clean energy wins the next economic revolution “I want America to be that nation.”  (applause)

That’s why, he says, the stimulus act has more clean energy funding than ever appropriated before…summarizes what the 89 billion bucks in the stimulus packae will go to fund.

Talks about a Massachusetts project — a test facility for wind turbine blades.  It is notable that Obama so readily digs at least one layer down into the technical details; its a rhetorically powerful way to claim not just support for a good cause, but the real value of that cause, the notion that we are spending cash on things that matter.  Smart guy, I’ve heard.

Many props to Governor Patrick — local Mass politics are a subtext here.

12:59:  Pivot to the comprehensive legislation we need and discussing the implications of Kerry’s climate change bill.  Mentions cleaner fossil fuels; biofuels, nuclear, wind, waves and sun.

Saying that there is a long, planned, intelligible path from an economy powered by fossil fuel dependence/carbon pollution threats to one that is sustainable; not making the claim that we can get there in one swoop.

Talks about DOD and business leaders and others coming round to the notion that global warming and dependence on fossil fuels is a national security and economic threat…making the case for the necessity, not merely the desirability of action.

Again, it’s an interesting strategy rhetorically; it seems to me that he is working hard to box in opponents to a smaller and less defensible position.  I hope it works.

He says explicitly that the opponents are being marginalized — but that they will fight harder as we get closer to a bill.

“They will say that we are destroying our eocnomy…when it is”what we got now that’s threatening it.

“We’re going to have to work on those folks.  But there is a more dangerous myth — because we are all complicit in it.”

That there is nothing we can do “it’s pessimism” …that politics are broken etc…

1:01:  That implies we can’t solve problems any more, says POTUS, and he knows that can’t be true….we’ve seen it at MIT and elsewhere…we’ve done it before (electricity) etc.

Writing teacher here.  This is an ugly phrase:  of innovators “they will lead us in the future as they have done so in the past.”

Can’t quite get my head around that one.

Ends with a pep paragraph…we can do this…we’re Americans, and we’re damn good at this kind of thing.

Last thoughts from your blogger:

He’s a good speaker, which we knew.  He’s smart as hell, which we also knew.  He’s a political process man.  This had no new initiatives or proposals in it, nor even a central, strong outline of how the specific actions discussed add up to the path to a sustainable energy future some decades out.

Rather, this speech seemed more or less to lay down a marker:  we’ve got some things going…we need now to pass the next piece of legislation — Kerry’s cap and trade plus other stuff bill is the one the President specifically referenced, along with the House bill already passed.

The praise for the various specific projects and research initiatives were designed to answer critics who say that we can’t escape fossil fuel use Most of the speech by running time was devoted to various general and specific paeans to the capacity of Americans to get this part of the job done.

Given that everybody, and especially me, are critics, here’s what I thought the speeh missed most:  I wanted to hear in this context a real and dire description of what failure here would mean, not just for the environment, but for the economy and safety of US citizens en masse and individually.

That is — I think it’s pretty well established that projecting the dire consquences of a 4 degree warming is still a hard thing to grasp (though this map is a good place to start).  But if you talk about the cost of wars, or even merely of the budget  year over year for Centcom…if you talk about clean energy jobs lost to other nations even now (see e.g. this story on the Chinese vs. American economic edge in solar energy products.)…if you talk about the lives lost here at home through the pollution being caused now by our current energy use pattern (18,o00 a year according to this report, about the same number as homicides for the last year I could pull the data quickly.  (See this CDC fact sheet and click through to the PDF  listed as the source for the summary numbers.)…if you go after the harm we suffer now through our dependence on our current energy mix, then the urgency for change and the willingness to assume risk in the service of that change will go up.

To be fair:  he did very clearly make the case that powerful interests in this area, like DOD, understand the implications of inaction and now favor significant energy policy change.  But he didn’t bring the reasons why home and down to the you and me level as sharply as I would have liked.

President Obama has the best pulpit in the world to preach this.  He has the right temperament too, by which I mean not his famous cool, but his genuine optimism, his sense that no problem is too hard for us to tackle.  That side of him was on display in full measure today, and I liked it.  But I think he needs to light more of a fire under us (sorry) on the other side, to remind us the most dangerous option we have right now is to stand pat.

And that’s my $.02

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.