Friday, September 12, 2008

Science and Politics

I had the best intentions to write more about our ongoing conference on Science in the 21st Century, but I didn't fully realize how exhausting it can be if every talk at a meeting is interesting. I'm totally not used to that. Since I presently don't have the time to write much, let me just briefly tell you about a discussion we had yesterday afternoon, lead by Beth Noveck from the New York Law School. The question that we eventually focused on was

How can science can be more efficiently embedded into the politic decision making process?

Greg Wilson - referred to by Chad as "Ontario's fastest typer" - took notes of the discussion - the file is here. There were a couple of interesting thoughts that came up in the meeting. At some point Greg asked the crucial question: How many of you work less than 60 hours per week? Not a single hand went up.

I totally agree with him that a large part of the issue is that scientists getting involved in politics is not presently sufficiently appreciated to convince typically extremely busy researchers to spend time on it. Another part of the problem is one of organization. It is a recurring theme at this conference: how do we get knowledge to where it needs to be and communicate it appropriately?

I'd just like to pass on these questions to you. I'd be really interested to hear your opinion on this.

Update Sep 15: See also Chad's post Peer to Patent and Government 2.0



  1. To a good approximation, large groups (even scientists) over long time periods will respond mostly to incentives. If scientists gained more from being involved in the political process -- or at the very least could see how their involvement was reaping benefits to them -- then there would be more scientists involved in the political process. You can say that this is too mercenary a view; but it's pretty robust to any particular issue, group, time period, or institution.

    So how can we give scientists more incentive to be involved with institutional design? Well the Founders of the United States had an answer in the form of a patent system. In the United States and in Venice in the 15th Century (later versions in Europe deviated into patronage of the sovereign), the patent system was intended to provide financial incentives to inventors and authors in order to encourage them to share their work with the rest of the world. For many artists and inventors, the effort of publishing or entrepreneurship are too substantial without the extra push of promised financial independence.

    Now the patent system right now is rather broken. Between about 1850 and 1900 it was working in the United States. Douglass North cites it as part of the impetus for the industrial revolution. The trouble is that it tends to be easily corrupted by the influence of large corporations.

    What scientists -- and the universities they work for -- need to realize is that getting more involved in patenting and entrepreneurship will NOT corrupt the cultural goal of pure scientific exploration for curiosity. Sometimes having people interested in both around makes it EASIER for people to focus on one or the other.

    In other words: scientists and engineers need to get behind universities in promoting a stronger patent system, one that will provide incentives to the people who come up with new ideas.

    Incidentally, making the world a better place for inventors happens to be what I've devoted my career to.

  2. The Montreal Convention set politicized limits on this and that, costing humanity a $trillion to date. 20 years later we see it was crap at the onset. HCFCs are intensely tumorigenic. ASHRAE Journal 36(7) 17 (1994) Programmes for Alternative Fluorocarbon Toxicity Testing (PAFT). They are astounding Greenhouse gases. Freons are safe, effective, and have expired patents.

    An advocate makes virtue of failure. The worse the cure the better the treatment - and the more that is required. Politics is Official Truth. Let's grow both food and fuel, or do you believe in thermodynamics? Maize pimp
    Archer-Daniels-Midland hates you. Politics' only use for science is as a blunt weapon.

  3. "How can science can be more efficiently embedded into the politic decision making process?"

    This a central issue to a blog I started recently:
    Basic Research in a Global World

  4. "I didn't fully realize how exhausting it can be if every talk at a meeting is interesting. I'm totally not used to that."

    I find that remark sad. If that's your experience, perhaps you should rethink your choice of conferences.

  5. It is a sad remark indeed, and I am constantly rethinking my choice of conferences. To a large extend however that's just because at some point you know many of the people at a conference and have heard half of the talks before. It might have been interesting the first time, but if you hear it three times you don't pay so much attention anymore. I've kind of gotten used to that being the case, but this conference has been very different in this regard.

  6. Hi Bee,

    When you find time, please elaborate more on the point you have raised previously, about "management" of research. I don't quite understand the idea you are at. I do find it appropriate in the case of large groups, specially involving experiments, in which the whole thing looks more like an engineering project than anything else. But otherwise, I am completey avert to the words "management"and "politics" specially concerning individual research (or small groups). More than anything else, I want my mind completely free and dislike people telling me what to do. Since I am certain that is not the intention behind your idea, I've got curious. If you have already explained it in detail, I missed it, so could you please provide a link?

    As it seems, the conference went out fine, congratulations. I look forward to watch some of the presentations.


  7. Hi Christine,

    I will surely write more about the topic, it might take a while though. What I mean with management has nothing to do with telling people what to do. In fact, I am convinced the best way to do science is to just let researchers do what they are the most interested in and not try to influence this process by any external pressure whatsoever.

    Just to give you two simple example of what I was talking about:
    1) reproduction of research results because the knowledge of what had been done before wasn't available or was not found
    2) the difficulties of finding somebody who could help you solve a problem that appears in your research but isn't really in your area of expertise. It might take you weeks to figure it out, but if you'd find the right person it would take him (her) some hours and you could move one.

    Both are examples where knowledge is potentially available, but not where it would be useful. Best,


  8. PS: Oh, and the topic of this post, political decision making, is of course also a case where knowledge has to be made available in the right place at the right time, efficiently and in a way useful for everybody involved.

  9. Hi Bee,

    if I consider myself, I don't know how much I work a week, since if I am not counting how much I sit on the computer to type in things and to research on the net or read articles. But the problems I am working about are usually constantly flipping around in my brain all day, even when I am walking to the supermarket or in into the city. Only when I am talking with other people or watching a movie, or reading a book I am not thinking not about physics.

    I need not to mention that physicists usually support their theories and fundamental research should be free and so independent of political decisions. That might be different from applied physics. In order to publish their opinions physicists (in general scientists) should have a platform (why not on the internet, some blogs like that here on a bunch of dot-org-sites), where they can contribute their opinions on whatever that they think is important. So we already have the 'system'. However of course this needs to be better organized and it need to be somehow advertised that there are websites where people can read what scientists think about things.

    Suppose you read, f.e., on an advertisement on CNN:

    'Read today: Kip Thorne on ...'.

    So there must be platforms that are known to the public and broadcasted somewhere. The money that these ads cost should be coming from a specific fund that society pays for, like a tax or whatever.

    To summarize all what I've written above. Scientists need to be in the mood to write articles, since they are very busy with everything. So if they are in the mood to write something down (different from usual research), a blog like your's is extremely fruitful, since every one can access it etc. The only thing is, it needs to be broadcasted what and where and that is an organizational and a money issue.



  10. Hi Bee,

    In scanning Greg Wilson’s notes I notice a lot of references to the concern regarding climate change. In the context of this post do you feel that this group is more aware and motivated by this issue because they are scientists or are they so motivated because scientists come with a certain political bias? In other words are they often motivated by science or rather belief in your opinion and is this any different then the populous at large? More importantly is there evidence to support any such difference? Again realize this is simply a question not a statement of contention or position.



  11. You saw Climate Change in Greg Wilson's notes because that was introduced as the example on which scientists should weigh in to help make policy. [just to provide more context from the meeting]

  12. Hi CarolH,

    Yes I realize it was given as an example and yet it was so offered as to be taken to be a foregone conclusion as to express a certainty and thus why I used it as an example in the context of my more general question.



  13. Hi Bee,

    I work far less than 60 hours per week. Less than 50.

    My problem is that when I am not working I am taking care of my family, of other things I do, and of recreational activities. So the total indeed is the unitary 168 hours weekly.

    I think the problem is not how much time one can carve out for an obligation such as politics. The problem is how much concentration one can reach during those extra hours.


  14. Hi Tomaso,

    You and Bee certainly are both experts at carving up and distributing quality cognition time as demonstrated in the writing’s and maintenance of your own blogs. In as most other scientists don’t spend such time surely they must have some left over for politics. I still believe the greatest reason for them not doing so is the stigma attached to such interests as it relates to process and motivation.

    By the way, with the LHC cranking up you must be very excited and motivated about your own main interest right now and you can be sure I will be looking to Bee and yourself to inform as to what unfolds and what relevance and implication it all holds. In reading Stefan’s most recent post Prof Higgs thinks the LEP only missed by 3 GEV and if he is correct we may not have long to wait.



  15. Hi Bee,

    If you mean scientists to be actively involved in politics, I don't think that, would make any difference. The whole political system in a typical western society is structured in a way that individuals cannot bring any true change regardless of their well intentions and their skills. It is the system that makes the decisions and not the individuals and sooner or you or later you'll have to compromise and go with the flow. Take Obama for example he may have good intentions but even if he is elected he won't be able to bring any true change and the US policy will be more or less the same. This is because behind the front scene there is a powerful bureaucratic mechanism and huge economical interests. They have the true power.

    Of course if you mean that the scientific community should be consulted by the government for various technical issues then this is another issue and i think it is already happening in a large extend.


  16. Condensed matter and atomic physicists tend to be much more entreprenurial and open to the Patent system. I know several who have some rather lucrative side deals with various businesses (either as consultants or partners), not to mention collaborations with big companies (IBM, Microsoft, etc).

    Otoh its rare for a particle physicist or cosmologist to deal with anything like that, for obvious reasons.

    Still it would be nice if some of those senior physicists would be a little more open to advertising our trade. All it takes for say the ILC to go live, is to convince Bill Gates or someone like that to get a little excited (and frankly it *is* exciting).

    But no, instead its back to moaning to the government for more money and trying to convince some of the pencil pushers at the grant departments to spend a minute or two to actually understand the various propositions (an exercise in futility).

    We're stuck in an archaic non capitalist philosophy, and its fundamentally silly. I for one, could care less if there is a 'Coke' brand on the ILC, if it means trimming off 20 years from its expected startup.

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  18. Here's my humorous take on science and politics, modified from my recent post to NG - but there's a real issue for the intellectual coherence of a real theory here!:

    My subtle quantum psi powers* tell me that the LHC did indeed "destroy the world" last week, but it doesn't matter anyway ...!? "The" world didn't get destroyed because there are so many of them according to the Everett-DeWitt "many worlds" theory of quantum mechanics. In the MW theory, each instance of random possibility branches into entire new universes expressing every option. (Like, whether Schrödinger's cat dies or not at any given moment. BTW don't let decoherence sophists take the mystery away.)

    For example, suppose that the chance of LHC experiments to date destroying the Earth is about 99.99%. You're ordinarily inclined to say, "we" probably wouldn't have made it. (That's a unique "we" in one universe, as conventionally imagined.) But suppose E-DW MW is true, and me and readers of this post are just in a multiverse branch that survived! The LHC may have already destroyed most Earths and “we” can’t tell the difference!
    ("Quantum suicide" [hint - you survive the attempt!]:
    (* inside joke, including the asterisk)

    Here's something you can try: arrange a "cat" type arrangement to kill you if McCain/Palin win the election, but leave you fully intact if they lose (put aside recount scandals, heh.) Hence, even if they have a 99% or whatever chance of winning, "you" (well, those versions of you that get through) will survive and be able to enjoy an Obama-Biden administration! Modify for any situation you don't want to put up with, or even to ensure you win the lottery, etc.! Isn't that cool?!

    The genuine logical problems for scientific method, expectation issues, etc. in this regard mean that maybe MW is BS after all ...But a man, or woman, can dream; or what's a heaven or multiple worlds for?

  19. Hi Michael,

    Indeed, the question of incentives was also brought up repeatedly in this discussion. It also came up in regard to the question why don't more scientists make an effort to communicate their research in an accessible way. Though I agree that thinking about incentives is a useful approach, I am skeptic about its merits, and especially so when it comes to financial incentives. The reason is that it is a top-down approach - it would inscribe a certain behavior as desirable. Doing so might have an effect, but it might a) lead to unconvinced and unconvincing commitments and b) it might just as well have side-effects nobody anticipated. I would therefore strongly prefer a bottom-up approach in which incentives remain flexible. Best,


  20. Hi Kay,

    Yes, same for me, I can't just switch off my brain at 5pm, even though I often wish I could.

    You are of course right that the internet offers a forum where scientists can voice their opinion on topics. But for one, the scientists that actually do it are few. I certainly wish there were more. It's not that I agree about political questions with them, but I have often found it to make a large difference whether I am trying to argue with somebody who has an education in science and somebody who hasn't (that includes all sciences, also the social sciences). It's a matter of leading an argument, and drawing conclusions. But besides this, publicly voicing an opinion is only part of the process. A significant part of political decision making takes place in small circles where papers are drafted and options are negotiated. It makes a difference whether scientists are able to offer input already at this stage, or only later.



  21. I don't understand the distinction between top down and bottom up. How would bottom up work? How can you change behavior without changing incentives? There may be answers, but I don't know of any that are known to work at scale.

    I hear the concern about unanticipated consequences though. Maybe start with small experiments and work our way up?

  22. Hi Michael,

    What I mean with bottom-up and top-down in this case is the following. You have a group of people, that might be a nation or, as in this case people, of a certain profession, or maybe just people working at the same place or whatever. They typically have some administration in place, some organization of their lives/work, may that be in form of laws, policies, or guidelines. If you get to referee a paper e.g. you get a sheet with guidelines, that's an example.

    To change some trend that group of people is subject to because it doesn't seem to be beneficial, they can either act against the incentives the system offers (bottom-up), or change the incentives (top-down). Typically, sooner or later both will converge anyhow, but it's a matter of initiative. There are plenty of examples for both, just look at history books. Revolutions typically don't take place because their are incentives for it. The environmental movement in Germany is a bottom-up example as well.

    In this case the situation is actually easier. I've often heard colleagues complaining about funding agencies and the difficulties in getting grants etc. But from my experience the problem is not with the funding agencies. For one, they are very open-minded when it comes to suggestions how to use their money more efficiently. But besides this, they eventually rely on referees from the community anyhow. The problem here originates in a weird situation in which people delegate responsibility elsewhere. E.g. making grants obtained a requirement for tenure does only reflect that the committee exports power to funding agencies. Similarly for looking at measures like the cite-index etc, it delegates personal judgment to questionable secondary criteria. How to change that? Well, first thing is get people to become aware what the danger is of doing that in the long run.



  23. Bee,

    This may seem stubborn, but I think that your distinction between top down and bottom up may not hold up. The thing is, even these bottom up movements are motivated by self-interest to a good approximation. I don't know much about the environmental movement in Germany, but I think it safe to say that environmental movements have sprung up in the developed world everywhere since individuals have become aware that their long-term health and wealth are in many cases being sacrificed for short-term increases in income. No doubt that media and NGOs play a role. But they would never get traction if people didn't agree that it was not in their self-interest, for example, to be out a home because of increased hurricaine winds or flooding.

    The way I see it, any durable institutional design must be an emergent phenomenon -- i.e., a partnership between leaders and followers motivated by self-interest (broadly construed) by both. We could do far better at fostering healthy partnerships. In particular, I think most leaders and followers are too focused on the next few months and year. But I doubt that change will come within any institution without it being demonstrated by reason and evidence to the followers and leaders alike that a given change is going to result in more and better of whatever good or service people rely on that institution for.

    In a nutshell, I'm begging you to reconceive of how you think about social change. It is a matter of dispersed, uninformed majorities being taken advantage of by concentrated, vocal minorities. But the majority will not vote or support or follow anyone else unless their self-interest will be obviously furthered by such an act. Ben Franklin: "If you would persuade, appeal to interest, not to reason."

  24. I think less now of Obama since he said (reportedly) to workers/leaders at some aerospace industries that he would support continuation of the Moon/Mars mission plans (started by GW Bush) in some sense. We can’t afford that kind of expenditure IMHO considering our current debts and real Earth problems that need solving. Any big funding should go to another type of “Apollo project” - one designed to provide us with energy independence. Comments?

  25. Hi Michael,

    I agree with what you say, but now you are talking about self-interests, whereas I was replying to your first comment about incentives. Incentives are used in governance because long-term or large-scale effects are typically undervalued in systems that operate merely on self-interests: because by human nature we tend to first think about the next day and our neighbors rather than about the world in three decades. That doesn't mean these long-term considerations don't exist, they just are often hindered in implementation by some sort of 'moral hazard' - a single person/company might put itself in a disadvantage it is if the only one changing behavior, as a result a necessary change might not take place at all.

    What is often done then is to determine the desired long term and macro-trends and convert them into incentives such that they match with the micro-interests. Typical examples: taxes and fees to convince people of thinking more about environmental impact. That however needs a properly working system to put these incentives in place. What I was trying to say above however is that in this case it seems more a matter of removing hindering incentives than putting more into place.




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