"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

NASA, DOE, and the Myth of Neutrality

UPDATE: To clarify my point here, US Federal scientific agencies have an aversion to taking positions. SUch aversion is not in line with public desires or expectations, and is ultimately infeasible. A refusal to take a policy position by a public agency on a matter of their specific expertise is equivalent to taking an explicit position that a policy is unnecessary. Saying nothing is not neutral.

Griffin's blundering into explicitly defending NASA's silence highlights this problem perfectly. Other agencies, which may demur more gracefully, are nevertheless equally arrayed against solving problems by their excessive reticence.

By now most readers will have heard of NASA administrator Michael Griffin's gaffes on NPR, for instance:
I'm also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down — pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of [global warming] is manmade. Whether that is a longterm concern or not, I can't say.
Don't miss Stephen Colbert's interesting take on this. It's fish in a barrel for Colbert, though he did get the fish square between the eyes.

Griffin does not understand that we want more from our professionals than a studied neutrality, but the public doesn't understand how pervasive his attitude is among the scientists in U.S. federal agencies. The problem is not that Griffin is being bizarre. The problem is that he is being quite typical within his context. Colbert, as usual, isn't as funny on second thought as he is at first.

Last week I attended a "town hall meeting" conducted by the Department of Energy, on the subject of very large scale computing ("exascale computing") as applied to energy and environmental simulations ("E3").

(It is interesting that the meeting is not called E4, exascale for energy, environment and economics, though the fourth "E", economics, had an important role at the meeting. For now I want to relate my primary frustration with the meeting, where some speakers echoed Griffin's stance. I'll have more to say about this whole cluster of concepts in a later posting.)

It was in many respects a great honor to be there, and many of the conversations were far ranging and excellent. The keynote address by Argonne Lab Director Robert Rosner was very much inspiring and to the point of our sustainability issues.

However, subsequent discussion showed a real aversion to actually applying science to inform policy. Specifically, when I suggested at the plenary that we come up with a formal definition of sustainability, and use this to provide a common goal to unify the various efforts being contemplated, this was met with an explicit argument that the policy sector would not like it.

The scientific establishment in the US executive branch is happy to "do science" about this or that policy, but they are adamant that it is not their job to propose or defend a policy. They seem terrified of advancing conversations about energy policy. I wonder what they are so afraid of.

If it is not the Department of Energy's role to advise the policy sector on complex technical issues regarding energy security, exactly whose job is it?

I hate to bite the hand that feeds me. I have friends in the DOE and at least have some prospect of benefiting from DOE science expenditures. Still, the times are such that DOE (like the other scientific agencies in the executive branch) needs to show some gumption whether they like it or not. It won't kill them and in the end it will make them stronger and the rest of us safer.

We need experts to recommend policy, not to spend money and leave policy to the politicians. As the world becomes more complicated, the job of the executive branch becomes more technical. To the extent we collectively allow science to duck this responsibility, we assume a very serious risk.

Coming back to Griffin, you will note that he never retracted his opinion. If anything, he tried to reinforce the idea that he had no opinion at all. This is not dissembling. That is not backing down. That is what he was trying to say all along. He is adamantly defending his position that he doesn't need to have a position and doesn't have one. The fact that it came across as, hmmm, barking madness, proves that there is no such thing as having no opinion.

What this event should teach us is that scientific agencies cannot possibly operate in some sort of policy-free vacuum. People need expert advice.

Imagine if your doctor said to you "Diagnostically, we are pretty sure you have a serious condition of (let's say) acute carbonic acid toxicity. We have many volumes of journal articles about your condition, but we're just scientists. Left untreated this will probably kill you, but since we are value neutral and only interested in facts, it wouldn't be appropriate for us to suggest whether or not your imminent demise is a good thing. It would certainly be arrogant of us to recommend a treatment."


Michael Tobis said...

PS see also Vranes; note his take on DOE's responsibilities here.

Anonymous said...

When is an "expert" not an "expert"?

I'm not sure but I suspect it might be when he disagree with our genial host!

I am reminded of the very wise saying that war is far too important to be left to the generals. Much the same goes for having a world run by, er, experts.

Unknown said...

Hi Michael,

I hope you enjoyed UW Madison, and Prof. Reid Bryson. Anyway, do you think NOAA leadership and NOAA's NWS office managers have been neutral on global warming when speaking with the public?

Michael Tobis said...

Hmmm. I wonder what David Duff would do should he need medical advice. Will he exclusively consult non-experts?

Experts should not run the world but that is not the same as not being consulted.

Anyway, it is one thing for the public to question experts. It's another thing altogether for experts to refuse to offer advice on the grounds that they, being experts, are uniquely excluded from doing so!

Refusing to advise constitutes advice that a problem is not serious. If a problem is in fact serious such a refusal eventually becomes a negligent violation of public trust.

Michael Tobis said...

Pat, I think NOAA is subject to the same pressures as other US federal agencies.

I am not an expert on how they have responded, but I gather that you are. I would not be surprised to find that they have been more or less inadvertently downplaying the risks in the interest of a misguided idea of policy neutrality.

Unknown said...


NOAA headquarters and its National Weather Service (NWS) are guilty of what you said in your comment above, i.e. ... "Refusing to advise constitutes advice that a problem is not serious." ... What is the public to think when the federal agency with a Climate Prediction Center refuses to give any advise or educational material on climate change?

Also, NWS downplayed global warming from 1993-2006 by telling the public that global warming was not a problem, and may be downplaying global warming in 2007 regarding a link to stronger hurricanes.

Anonymous said...

I treat my doctor, any doctor, in much the same way as I treat a plumber. Take any 10 plumbers and two of them will be truly excellent, six of them will do a job more or less, and two of them should have been bricklayers because they'll never understand plumbing as long as they have a hole in their backside!

Of course, the trick is that you will never know until you try them, which is why the rascals, plumbers and doctors, charge as much as they do! That is also why I told my new doctor that I paid little heed to any advice offered by his profession (on the grounds that they usually changed their minds every generation) until I was actually ill, then I would do anything he said.

For "doctor" in the last paragraph, read 'climate so-called-scientist'.