Friday, December 26, 2008

Suggestion 13: Restore independent advisory agencies for science, technology and other areas of skilled analysis

(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)

(Note! I am posting sometimes two a day, in oder to clear these away before new years!)

I’m proud to have lent some modest help to the ScienceDebate2008
 effort, which got both the Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns to answer questions on science and technology policy.  Before making my own science-related recommendations, let me clip a recent statement from the folks at Science Debate 2008:

We want to congratulate President-elect Obama on continuing to assemble an outstanding science team, starting with Nobel Laureate and experienced scientific administrator Steven Chu as Energy Secretary. Two more outstanding appointments are:

a.  John Holdren as President Obama's Science Advisor.  John has an excellent knowledge of science policy, and a deep understanding of how the public needs the government to engage on science policy issues.  He is a recent past president of the AAAS and an early and ardent Science Debate 2008 supporter.

b. Jane Lubchenco, we're told, will head up President Obama's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admninistration (NOAA).  She is an outstanding choice with a deep background in marine biology.  Jane is also a past AAAS president, and also an early supporter of Science Debate 2008.

What other evidence is there, that we may have reversed directions veering away from the know-nothing cliff? During the recent election campaign, Barack Obama received endorsement from 61 of the country’s Nobel laureates in physics, medicine and chemistry — scientific heavyweights who used the occasion to both call for a scientific renewal in America and critique the state of American science at the end of the Bush era.
Nothing could better indicate the turn in our national fortunes than to see science no longer dismissed as a realm of pointy-headed boffins, but viewed as part and parcel of our nation’s future.  Now, let me go farther with some added proposals:

1)  Rebuild OTA and other science advisory agencies in Congress

Yes, we look back at Newt Gingrich as having been mild and reasonable - ahem, well, relatively - compared to the horrific troglodytes who followed.  Still, among the truly loathsome crimes that occurred on his watch was the dismantling -- with malice and absolutely open-eyes toward the likely disastrous consequences -- of the in-house scientific and technical advisory apparatus that used to help senators and representatives base their deliberations on fact, rather that arm-waving dogma.  One of the greatest disappointments of the 2006 Congress that elevated Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, was its timidity about reversing this crime against the Republic.

The idea of bringing back the Office of  (Science and) Technology Assessment has never been dormant. In the 13 years since the OTA closed, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) have championed several attempts to reopen its doors. Other efforts are mounting. Yet, as noted science journalist Chris Mooney wrote in a Science Progress column earlier this year, “the quest to restore dedicated science advice for Congress through a reborn Office of Technology Assessment has proven more difficult than one might have supposed.”

This situation must be rectified, as soon as possible.  Moreover, steps should be taken -- perhaps backed up by an Inspector General of the United States (see #7) -- to ensure that in future, technical reports may not be rewritten by politicians, changing their meaning at the last minute.  (See also my remarks about the Civil Service -- and rooting out the “burrowers” who started as fanatical Bush political appointees and wrangled civil service slots as permanent endowments from which to keep spreading idiocy.)

2) Try to get more scientific-minded people into high office, especially Congress.

Advisors are one thing.  It will be quite another thing for some of the worst, troglodyte Congresscritters to know that several of their congressional peers sitting nearby know -- and can rise to point out -- how foolish they sound.  In other words, why should there not be a few Congressfolk who actually know something about the world and how it works?

Let’s reduce this to fundamentals - is there any inherent reason why our policy-making legislative and executive apparatus should be dominated almost entirely by lawyers?  That is almost as unwise as it was to fill upper management in commerce and industry with solely MBA business majors, who never built a product or delivered a single palpable service.

Specifically, the governors who are appointing replacements for Senators jave resigned in order to enter the Obama Administration should be encouraged to go outside the political caste and go directly to the kinds of people who are so sorely lacking in Congress.  Instead of scions of famous political dynasties, why not prove you really are “above politics” by appointing somebody prestigious and brilliant from a field the public actually respects?  A couple of politically savvy scientist-senators might change the entire tenor of deliberation, on the floor of that august body.

Well. Naive hope springs, eternal.

3) Yes, re-emphasize science and technology education, the way we did after Sputnik.  But go farther!  Let’s make this renewed emphasis sharp enough for even the obstinate to notice.

Investment maven David A. Rosenberg recently commented: “We have 1.2 million unemployed construction workers. We have 123,000 unemployed architects and engineers. We have 83,000 unemployed machinery workers. We have 145,000 unemployed transportation-related workers. So that brings us to barely more than 1.5 million of a labor pool the government can tap into for all the new building activity. But the bulk of the joblessness is in financials (up to half a million), retail/wholesale (1.2 million), leisure/hospitality (1.3 million) and health/education (1.2 million). And if investment bankers, shopkeepers, bell captains and medical chart technicians have anything in common it is that they don't have much experience in shovel-ready activities.”

To which I must reply -- so what?  Barack Obama talks about how we must return to being a technologically adept and innovative society.  But all the scholarships and propaganda in the world will not do as much to change minds about that as the sight of thousands of MBAs and business school graduates -- who drove our nation into the ground while preening and posing as geniuses and grabbing loot hand-over fist -- frantically learning to do something that is actually useful, making a product or delivering a service. Or else honorably driving bulldozers, developing sun tans and new muscles, helping to build infrastructure that will make America strong again.

Watch.  Just watch how quickly some of those “financial geniuses” discover the value of practical knowledge, or math, or facts, or any of the other things that boffins and wage slaves -- both the scientists and the practical workers -- knew all along.  That money serves us all best when it plays the role of helper, and not tyrant.

4) Get grassroots science advisory systems going in every community.

Again, the theme of citizen-level resilience that I have raised elsewhere.  There are so many ways to do this.  For example, get inexpensive chemical sensors into public hands -- even into some cell phones  -- and watch how quickly they pour data both into public agency databases and ad hoc citizen networks.  Communities will be able to monitor their own waste streams, or zero in to help everyone spot and fix energy hemorrhages.  There are a million other ideas, awaiting only the right environment of can-do encouragement.

Yes, we need federal action.  But I am sure President Obama will grasp what George Bush never could -- even though it is supposedly” conservative” wisdom -- that the best solutions are often local ones.

Try a “crackpot idea” or two...

All right, this one really belongs in Suggestion #19: “Crackpot Ideas.”  But thematically it has a home here.  I suggest the creation of a Shadow Congress that will be an outer, advisory commission, consisting of one eminent scientist or other professional, appointed by each member of Congress. Ideally, these 535 luminaries (serving pro-bono) would be the “best” technically savvy people in each congress-person’s district, who is also basically compatible with his or her viewpoint.

Each delegate would receive all congressional technical reports and have the right to post, online, their own appraisals and discussions, with the aim of thrashing out matters of FACT... just as the Senators and representatives are charged with deliberating matters of POLICY.  At minimum, the resulting online deliberations should be interesting and involve a higher level of scientific discourse than those in Congress itself. But advantages go further.

1) This could staunch propaganda about the main Congressional advisory panels being biased, since the shadow commission would keep a wary eye.

2) If this outer commission reaches consensus to accept (or revise) a particular proposal, then it would provide political cover for the Senator or Congressperson to do the same.  A valuable escape clause for any representative worried about offending the fanatics back home.

3) And, yes, this body would bridge the world of science and politics, because many members would be appointed by representatives who have their own burning agendas.   So?  This commission will put the congressional fanatics into a terrible bind. If they choose somebody eminent, with genuine credentials and peer respect, they risk getting unwelcome news from their own appointee. If they pick a “scientist” of the flaky, fifth tier -- based on some dogma-driven agenda like climate change denial or creationism -- then the appointment will be open for glaring scrutiny... and politically-damaging hilarity. 

In what way would this not be a win-win for the pro-science and pro-future majority in the new Congress?

6) Above all, speak up often about the future...

...about how it will be different.  It cannot help but be.  But Americans have always done best when we dealt with change in a way that no other people did -- with a spirit of excitement and confidence and hope.

After all.  This year, change is exactly what we asked for.dvantages go further.

--Continue to Suggestion #14: Insure the kids...


Acacia H. said...

RE: Scientists as Politicians. Okay, while the Timothy Zahn concept of Jedi politicians from his first Thrawn trilogy is potentially cool (and your suggestion has the same general feel as in the Jedi politician aspect), there is a major hurdle to your idea here. Scientists aren't quite as savvy on the social front on average as are lawyers.

Think on that for a moment. Many lawyers are taught how to argue their case and take facts that agree with their argument and convince a jury or judge to agree with their point of view. Or in other words, Lawyers are taught how to be charismatic, and the more charismatic ones are the more successful ones.

The "stereotypical" scientist is a somewhat socially withdrawn person who may even be inept when it comes to personal interactions. While there are a number of exceptions (as stereotypes only play on perception rather than fact), how many scientists are going to go up against their lawyer brethren to fight for seats in Congress, especially when that drags them away from where their true passion lies?

Remember, the President of the U.S. in Independence Day was the hotshot pilot rather than the quiet computer programmer who was responsible for a) saving said President and b) saving the world. ^^ America is into brawn over brains, despite the fact that brains often can get results brawn fails to.

Rob H., cynic at heart

David Webb said...

Most of the scientists I've met have been more than capable communicators, and definitely impassioned enough to get a point across and do it well.

What science lacks is glamor, which is one of the things America (and the world) loves. Lawyers definitely have more than scientists, but turning that around is pretty simple.

My question is - how do we avoid these advisers being bought? How can we ensure the advice they give is not representing assorted vested interests?

Cliff said...

Robert - despite your Timothy Zahn reference, I agree with you. I think America's got a cultural fixation on alpha males, and I think we've seen this even in Presidential elections.

Matt DeBlass said...

Here in NJ we've had Rush Holt, who holds a PhD. in physics, as a Representative for about a decade (he's also the only Quaker in congress). His district begins a few miles away from where I live, otherwise my car would be sporting one of his bumper stickers, which read "My congressman IS a rocket scientist."
He's in the minority though, only a small percentage of congressmen have higher degrees at all.

Here's hoping that the coming years will see intellectual curiosity become fashionable again (can we track this by logging ratings for Discovery Channel shows a rough indicator?).

Anonymous said...

Scientists (or Engineers) as politicians
I think there are selection pressures here.
Somebody who wants to get into politics needs a fair amount of their own money - not so much for the electioneering but to live on while they are working for "the party" before being selected and then elected.
Working as a scientist you will have several gray hairs before you can afford to take a couple of years off

This factor means that politicians will tend to have inherited wealth or professions that can give a lot of money for a small amount of work:
Lawyers, Real Estate, "Wheeler dealers".

Or most of the time both

David Webb said...

He was talking about a shadow congress of scientists, one scientist/advisor appointed by each congresscritter.

A technocracy, even an elected one, is not what we want here. But plenty of politicians could use the help. Especially with some of the longer words.

Anonymous said...

Some of David Brin's suggestions are excellent, while others seem completely out to lunch. In the "superb" category, we have the commonsense suggestions to restore independent science advisors, to put more technically trained people (except programmers, who have no concept whatever of the scientific method) in positions of actual political power as congressmen or senators, creating the office of an IG of the U.S., and so on. These suggestions are as insightful as they are obvious. It's clear why the sociopathic con men in the White House dismantled all these oversight and science and audit agencies -- it's much harder to steal the government blind when an auditor with a green eyeshade peers over your shoulder.
It's also much harder to pull infantile confidence games, like claiming we should "teach the controversy" twixt creationism and evolution, if you've got people in the government who have actually been trained in the hard sciences.

But some of David Brin's suggestions are just plan crazy.

For example, number 9, rebuild the army and national guard. This is insane. We currently spend 1.35 trillion dollars on defense, broadly defined as a combo of NRO and NSA and CIA and homeland security plus grants to local police forces to further dismantle the constitution and repeal the bill of rights using grotesque abominations like SWAT teams and IR cameras to peer through the walls of peoples' houses to determine whether they're using grow lights for various illegal plants, and so on. Since America's GDP is probably no more than 6.5 trillion dollars, this means that we're currently spending around 1/5 of America's GDP on so-called "defense," most of which is wasted, and all of which simply serves to destroy the constitution. That's a soviet level of defense expenditure, folks. It's unsustainable. It's nuts.

Thsoe of you gullible enough to believe that America actually has a 13 trillion dollar annual GDP, by the way, need to wake up and smell the latte. Our stock market has imploded, our housing market has collapsed, our industrial base is imploding, and our retail section is melting away. Why? Where did all the money go when the stock market collapsed by 50% and the value of houses declined by 50%?

Well, the short answer is that the money was never there. As we now know from the Lehman Bros. collapse and the Bernie Madoff scam and the GOldman Sachs ripoffs, most of America's so-called "wealth" was nothing more than accounting games. To put it bluntly, most of America's 13 trillion dollar GDP was a con game. It was financial engineers and corporate CEOs and corporate accountants and dot-com investment bankers and home loan officers cooking the books and using mass fraud to create the illusion of wealth.

Since the high on the DJI this year was around 12,000 and the low was 7449, it's easy to deduce that with mass waves of unemployment shockwaving through the American economy like a ten-mile-high tsunami wave racing toward us in 2009, the stock market probably has at least another 25% or 30% to drop. Bill Gross (the world's most renowned bond trader, who runs PIMCO) did a calculation back in 2002 in which he concluded that the fair value on the Dow was no more than 5000. If we assume that's the case, we conclude that the stock market has about another 50% or so to decline before it even approaches fair value.

Now, the stock market tracks the U.S. economy. So what this tells us, plain and simple, is that the U.S. economy never had anything like a 13 trillion dollar GDP. Our actual GDP, after we clear away all the 150-million-dollar F-35 joint strike fighters that don't work and all the 40 billion dollar ABM systems that are completely bogus and don't work, and all the corporations that looked like they were profitable but actually did nothing other than outsource manufacturing and marketing and sales and customer service to third world countries, and all the hollow corporations like GE that superficially looked like real companies but that actually made 70% of their profits from black-box divisions like "GE Financial" which I assure you is nothing but a giant scam just like Bernie Madoff's accounting con games... Well, when you clear away all that bullshit and smoke and mirrors, you wind up with a U.S. GDP that is probably no greater than 6.5 trillion at the very most.

So think about this... We're spending 1.35 trillion out of an actual GDP of 6.5 trillion...and David Brin wants us to spend more????

That's insane.

We need to dismantle the U.S. military. Get rid of it. Shut it down. It's destroying our constitution and militarizing our society with SWAT teams and tasers and mass violations of the bill of rights like the outrageous ongiong FISA warrantless wiretapping high crimes and misdemeanors, so let's get rid of it. America has nothing to fear from the Russians, the Chinese are in a wild panic because their economic growth rate will drop below 8%, producing hundreds of millions of unemployed rural workers, and they're far too worried about a mass revoution of the peasants who left their farms to find work in the cities and now find themselves unemployed and homeless.

So what are gong to spend 1.35 trillion dollars of our actual 6.5 trillion dollar GDP on? Defending ourselves from the terrifying hoardes of the...Canadians? Or to keep our women and children safe from those rapacious...Mexicans?


America is fortunate in that we have borders with two of the mildest and least empire-interested cultures on earth. We don't need a military, except for coastal defense. As General Smedley Butler pointed out in 1932, "War is a racket. We should have no army and no navy, except for coastal defense."

Then David Brin concocts an even wackier suggestion: control our borders. Doesn't David Brin realize what it would mean if we shut down illegal immigration from Mexico?

The Mexican government would be overthrown in a violent revolution within a week. The ONLY thing that keeps the Mexican government afloat is the remittance payments from illegal Mexican immigrants to their families back home in Mexico. In fact, these remittance payments are now the single large source of cash in the Mexican economy, exceeding even Mexico's oil revenues.

Folks, wake up. The Mexican economy is 4% (that's 1/25) the size America's economy. With their uncontrolled population growth, Mexico stands on the brink of mass starvation, and is certainly gripped with mass poverty and unemployment. If we shut down Mexico's border to the U.S. and controlled it, Mexico would explode.

So while many of David Brin's suggestions seems sensible and reasonable, some of them just force me to question his grasp on reality.

If you want to know the way things are heading, take a quick look at James Howard Kunstler's "clusterfuck nation" website. He's a little too pessimstic -- he thinks we're headed back to horses and wagons, rural farming and hand looms. We can aviod that with nuclear power, but the reality, as Kunstler points out, that with the lethal combo of Peak Oil and global warming, America's big task in the 2010s through 2030s will managing the contraction of our economy. Things are going to get a lot more austere. I doubt we'll go all the way back to horse-drawn carts, but wild luxuries like the personal automobile and the single-passenger personal airplane are absolutely gone. These are history. America can no more afford this extravagant luxuries in an era of Peak Oil than we can afford to keep hunting whales for their ambergris. That stuff is over. It's done. It's finished.

A while back, I pointed out that America should shut down all private aviation. The reaction to this was a real crackpot firestorm of class kookiness. "Private aviation is half of all aviation!" people objected.

This makes me seriously question the mental health of the people on this forum. Don't you people get it? Haven't you woken up yet?

Fossile fuels are going away. This is not "my opinion." This is not some delusion I'm suffering from. We CANNOT AFFORD extravagances like private aviation or personal cars. They're done with. We have to get more efficient, and not just slightly more efficient -- we need to get radically more efficient.

That means mass transit, both in the air and on the ground. Ground all the fuel-sucking private jets, shut down and scrap all the personal cessnas, confiscate all the SUVs and hummers and recycle 'em as bicycles.

Folks, we are headed for a serious contraction in our economy, and in our lifestyle. The good news is that if we manage it adroitly, we'll make it through without too much pain. But we CANNOT continue to walk around mumbling gibberish about 'rebuilding the military' or keeping all those private single-passenger cessnas and lear jets in the air, or letting people continue to tool around in their hummers. This is just out of the question. It's impossible. The days of the private care and the private airplane are as dead and gone as the lost cities of Mohenjo-Daro or the necropolis of Thebes, and you people had better wake up and realize that. Because otherwise, you're in for a hell of a shock.

Suggestions David Brin should've proposed, but didn't, include:

[1] Depopulating most of the American southwest. Los Angeles is largely uninhabitable without affordable gasoline. And gasoline will not be affordable, the current low gas prices represent a temporary respite. Gas will soon head up back past $5 a gallon, and that's only the start. L.A. and Phoenix AZ and Taos NM and other giant cities of the American southwest are unsustainable without mass quantities of water frm the Colorado river (which won't be there when the snow pack inevitably diminishes as a result of global warming), and in any case the whole American southwest runs of oil for tranport. It's going away. America's big goal for the next few years should be managing the depopulation of the American southwest. That includes Los Angeles. Shut it down by federal order and relocate everyone, because if we wait till the water riots when gasoline is $20 a gallon, there'll be real violence and chaos when L.A. and the rest of the big American southwestern cities depopulate in mass hysteria.

[2] We need a crash program to build as many nuclear power plants as possible. 500 to 800 would be a reasonable minimum, but we may want to plan for more than that. China is already breaking ground on 300 nuclear plants. We need to get started today, right now, because we don't have much time.

[3] We need to shut down the American car industry and turn it into a publicly owned non-profit organization designed to churn out redesigned mass transit vehicles and single-person mopeds, preferably electric mopeds. Someone here suggested that a while back. Good idea. We need to do it. We shouldn't let the U.S. car industry go away, because history shows that once American manufacturing jobs disappear, they never come back.

[4] We need to pay scientists decent money. American society is degenerating because America refuses to pay its best minds to do science. The guy who runs this forum is a classic example of America's degeneration. Brin couldn't make anywhere near as much money doing actual science as writing silly stories about aliens and dolphins running around in space...that's grotesque and outrageous, and a clear sign of the degeneracy of American culture. Science is the most valuable and important thing our scientists can do. We should pay them well to do science.

So as a start, we should shut down all American high school and college sports programs. Fire all the coaches. Use the $750,000 a year colleges paid their worthless useless football coaches to jack up the salaries of university and high school science professors. In many high schools, the science programs are so degraded that the P.E. coaches wind up teaching biology and math. It's a scandal. If we want Americans to do something, the rule of thumb is that people do what makes the money, so let's pay science teachers and scientists the way we used to pay star athletes and college football coaches.

Matt DeBlass said...

S.W.A.T. teams are a division of the police, not the military, not really the same thing.
The thing about the National Guard is that, before it went on "perpetual emergency" status and moved overseas, it really was a useful disaster relief and emergency response (hurricanes, floods, forest fires, all the stuff they should be helping with)service.

I don't think anyone here would argue that against the idea that we need to bring energy consumption and our economy to a more realistic and sustainable level, although I'm not sure I'd want to make my winter commute on a moped. I do, however, do it on a bicycle sometimes. It's 20 miles each way, which is why I don't bike every day.
Let me add, based on personal experience, that transportation consumption could be cut down tremendously if people like myself, in relatively low-income situations, could afford to live near where they work. That's another complicated matter.
Finally, let me add that while you make some really good points, you probably lessen your rhetorical impact by what might best be described as a confrontational style. Questioning someone's mental health in order to make a point is not an effective way to get them to see the merit of your argument, it will more likely make them discount what you say.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous's comments about the US military - I think they are a bit extreme but I don't know why you need to spend so much?
The Empire used to have the "Two Power standard" for the RN - America seems to be working on the 15 power standard.
With most of those 15 as allies.
Why do you need so much?

David Brin said...

What anonymous really objects to is any time I veer non-left, even though I have made it clear that I consider much of the left to be almost as ... ill-considered as the right.

David Webb said...

Anonymous has a point about Phoenix (I live there, if the Salt River Project was the only source of water this place would dry up and blow away), but why wouldn't L.A. turn to desalination plants for water?

Also, if the southwest were to depopulate, why go nuclear (with the associated risk and problem byproducts) when you could carpet large areas of Arizona and New Mexico (and maybe Nevada) with solar plants? Might as well make use of the space and the natural resources.

rewinn said...

"... Get grassroots science advisory systems going in every community..."

May I suggest the Sustainable Ballard model as one examplar. A *lot* of sustainability relies upon figuring out the right science/technology/engineering for the particular community, and then either gettin'r done locally, where possible, or pushing for action higher up the political food chain.

While there can be some annoying airy-fairy element to any local group, when the time comes to get all practical and deliver results, the science should pop up to the top pretty fast. That establishes a knowledge base with which to provide usable information for the politicians, as well as a cadre of voters with which to motivate them, if you know what I mean.

It's pretty straightforward to launch a "Sustainable Mytown" group whereever you're located, it can save you money as well as your environment, and it can be fun!


Restoring the OTA etc is obviously a good idea as a first step to repairing the damage of this Administration. The last superpower to have Party Officials force Scientific Truth to fit Party Doctrine lived to regret it (...although it's worth noting that those same Party Officials didn't suffer themselves from this policy).

A longer-term problem is how to keep this from happening again. I'd like to think that the upcoming generation will be smarter than our was, if only because the internet shatters the information oligarchies of earlier eras. But I dunno ...

In an earlier era, an anti-scientific President could do great but not lasting harm; the land would survive, and most of our population. Now-a-days, this is not the case; a President who decides to install Party officials to control Science can seriously damage our planet. This situation was beyond the vision of our Founders.

Cliff said...

Thsoe of you gullible enough to believe that America actually has a 13 trillion dollar annual GDP, by the way, need to wake up and smell the latte.

This makes me seriously question the mental health of the people on this forum. Don't you people get it? Haven't you woken up yet?

That's some classic Zorgon material right there - show up and insult everyone on the blog as though we were all high school dropouts.

He makes many good points, although on Mexico I would say we need to shut down the War on Drugs. That might really cause Mexico to explode, if we destroy the black market for overpriced illegal drugs.
Or it might turn the cartels into legitimate marijuana-farming businesses. Who knows?

Rådgivende ingeniør said...

I agree also for your Timothy Zahn reference. Maybe its time for us to do it on the Presidential Election.