Biogeochemistry Reading Group: Roger Pielke Jr.

May 26, 2008 – 2:51 pm

On March 6, 2007, Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. visited the Biogeochemistry Reading Group and talked to us about the interface between science and policy. Roger was a CU student as an undergraduate and is now a professor here. Back in the day, he worked at NCAR as a FORTRAN programmer and felt privileged to work with some of the preeminent scientists involved with the Montreal Protocol. After that, he went and worked for a lawmaker in Washington D.C. and observed that both scientists and policy makers wished that they understood each other better. We read a short opinion piece Roger wrote for Nature as well as a copy of some testimony that he gave in congress on the topic.

Roger made some provocative arguments about the role of science in society. First, he argued that taxpayers may eventually realize that they are not getting their money’s worth with public investment in science, causing the general public approval rating to fall, which could then potentially lead to a drop in public funding. Second, he argued, as he does in his book, that scientists should not demand extra influence in politics because of their status. Instead they should lay out the options for policy makers without advocating a particular cause. I don’t know if I agree with either of these arguments, but I like the large-scale thinking that he applies to the topics.

Although Roger discussed several interesting points about how high public research expenditures do not necessarily translate into societal benefit, I found a story he shared about the language of science policy particularly interesting. Before 1950, doing research for the sake of knowledge without concern for practical application was called “pure research.” Today, scientists call this “basic research,” which is what I learned in school. Why the change in terminology? Roger said that the term “basic research” may have become favored for its political convenience. Apparently, “basic research” means something different to policy makers than to scientists. To scientists, it’s the same as “pure research,” which appeals to scientists because they like to think their work is just inherently interesting and important. But to policy makers, basic research means the main basics of a field of interest, and this seems like something worth paying for. So, policy makers are not getting what they think they are getting.

Roger thinks that the approval rating for science will fall and that the political system (democracy) is set up so that if we do not show the societal benefits of our research, we will be out of a job eventually. He explained, “Science is one of the most favored and respected institutions in the country….[People think] We give money to science; we get iPods. That’s pretty cool.” In other words, the public understanding of science is currently oversimplified. Roger thinks that scientists should attempt to pre-emptively fix this problem. There has already been a move in this direction and I agree with Roger that it may grow stronger. After the cold war, interest in research that did not benefit society dropped. By 1998, NSF proposals changed to include a new requirement: the societal benefit section was added to NSF proposal criteria. Roger explained, “there’s really no such thing as basic research any more.” Roger thinks that this trend has been a good thing.

I agree that the trend has been a good thing, though I don’t think that it would be good to move too far toward eliminating any line of inquiry that does not have immediate practical application. There is a certain randomness to research in which just the doing of it is important because it allows for serendipitous discoveries.

We also talked quite a bit about the role for scientists in advocacy. Should scientists try to stay out of science or should they jump in and make recommendations? Roger says that as scientists, we should not demand more influence because of our status. He feels that the correct way to advocate is to organize through our institutions. He said not to make arguments like “the science dictates….” Roger says he does not think that organizations like the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) will be reinstated, but that we need more of the culture of OTA where scientists lay out options that can then be picked through by policy makers. Roger thinks that we should integrate the science and policy to lead to better outcomes and that scientists have to resist the tendency in the policy world to reduce the options to a politically tractable number. So scientists should focus on finding outcomes. His book goes into this in a lot greater detail.

I like the laying out options idea, but I also don’t necessarily oppose scientists like Jim Hansen who are really vocal on the issues. I think scientists are just going to advocate like any citizen and some will and some won’t, but we can’t necessarily stop them.

Here’s a link to Roger’s book that he hopes will be a field guide for how scientists can become involved with policy. I took a look at it and while it is quite academic in tone, it had overall interesting ideas. His analysis of the controversy surrounding Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist is quite good.

Finally, Roger said that he sees the politicization of the politicization of science is a disturbing trend. That’s a brain twister, but once you figure it out and listen to the candidates in the current election, I think he’s right that this is occurring.

  1. One Response to “Biogeochemistry Reading Group: Roger Pielke Jr.”

  2. “I agree that the trend has been a good thing, though I don’t think that it would be good to move too far toward eliminating any line of inquiry that does not have immediate practical application. There is a certain randomness to research in which just the doing of it is important because it allows for serendipitous discoveries.”

    I agree with you. But since we live in a capitalist nation, the days of private R&D are disappearing. Places like Bell Labs no longer exist and most mega corporations just buy ideas from Europe or Asia. Also, this is probably why most of our high tech science instruments are built from Germany or Japan… We (the U.S.) used to be the leaders in developing novel materials (e.g. Teflon) and equipment. Too bad we have to import a lot of that now just to do research (especially chemicals).

    By Brian on Jul 31, 2008

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.