Thursday, February 5, 2009

Science and Policy Bootcamp - Day 5

Last day!

Instead of lecturing, we were able to hear more about some personal experiences with policy through a panel of three scientists who have worked in the public sphere:

-a younger lady who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists in the arena of missile defense, especially in conjugation with the space program; earned a PhD in physics and decided that academia wasn't for her and cold-called until she finally came to UCS, a think tank that works to produce public policy-related recommendations based on science

-a young man who works for the state of Massachusetts in the energy department (apparently MA has put into law to be producing CO2 at 80% below 1990, an astonishingly ball-sy policy move. I am proud to live here). He worked on the hill with an AAS fellowship for a year, and he was definitely in a suit and tie

-a graduate of MIT in electrical engineering in 1950; he went to Oxford to get a DPhil in physics, but quit after one hour (really) and decided to earn another bachelors degree, this time in economics. He worked at MIT for a bit, then went into the army for the Korean war, worked in technical/engineering related things for awhile, and eventually made his way to DC and worked as a science advisor for both Eisenhower (during the Sputnik era) and Carter. Since then he has worked as a professor at MIT (although he doesn't teach anymore).

After a week of endless economics and bureaucracy, it was nice to see human faces behind the roles that people play. The woman who works for UCS was wearing a really cute dress and fun earrings, the older gentleman was pretty much exactly like Pa, and the MA-DoE guy was really crisp and reminded me of a friend in business school.

Some points they brought up:

Authority - in the scientific field, authority is gained via publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals-it is more akin to mutual scientific agreement of a given scientist's ideas, experimental method, and quality of research. That reputation is kept via the continuation of publishing great papers, and can become irreparably tainted by publishing false data, coming to unrealistic conclusions, or manipulating data. Outside the scientific community, we are the "white coat people" who do experiments and should be able to come up with all-or-nothing conclusions of Truth and Existence: they are "honest brokers of integrity." Right. I don't know if anyone can seriously say that the profession of scientist automatically makes you honest (reference human cloning, among many, many others).

Uncertainty - within any scientist's work is an amount of statistics and probability that shows the possibility of a conclusion being correct or incorrect. In the policy world, using quantitative statistics versus qualitative descriptions like "highly likely" is turning into quite the debate. Some argue that it is untruthful to use anything but the scientifically determined outcomes, with all of the "messiness" they incur. Others say that because the average person does not have the statistics background to understand these figures, why bother? If the rigor is there (something that most people do believe) then using adjectives instead of percentages should be acceptable. For me? I wish that everyone understood the statistics. But as that is pretty idealistic...and because of that I'm not feeling adamant about either side. Another student in our class brought up that studies have shown how humans aren't so good at processing what does it matter? Either way---provides a good reason to require stats in high school.

Just being a scientist doesn't mean you're excellent and knowledgeable about everything. Is it okay to use your reputation as a scientist in say, genomics, to say that you believe climate change exists? Scientists do have influence. But you need to learn how to use it.

Partisanship in science - why are there so many left-leaning scientists? Is this a self-selecting field? On the other hand, engineering is seen as a primarily right-leaning discipline. Why? When inviting scientists to the hill, does their political affiliation matter? Should we try to make sure there is a balance of political persuasions, or would that destroy the meritocratic method of selection (in much the same way affirmative action is accused)?

Richard Lindzen, a professor here at MIT, is one of the most famous dissenters in the field of climate change, is a atmospheric scientist and physicist that has been ostracized from most of the MIT community. talked to him this past week, and the young woman laughed, saying "taking one for the team."

I asked a question about what they read everyday to keep up on science and technology, as well as the rest of the world. The overwhelming response was reading the big three (NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), and blogs. There is now a new way to disseminate knowledge through blogs: from very technical well-researched blogs to those that reference these first blogs, and then the secondary and more lay-person oriented sites---instead of having one person to do it all (know everything technical and how to explain it to anyone from other scientists to biology teachers to people whose occupations are as far away from rocket science as possible). Now, there is a succession of people which make the very technical something accessible to all readers. That is pretty darn cool.

Also - a rather timely article from Science Progress entitled "Change Scientists Can Believe In." This basically echoes everything this class has taught me about research and innovation. It needs to happen, and it's worth it, both monetarily and otherwise.

And with that...I am exhausted. And torn. I still have no idea what I want to do with my life.

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