Science policy versus science budgets

On Monday last week, there was a lecture in a pub, with the subject being “Science Policy and the General Election”. Being a subject in which I am quite interested, I was disappointed to be unable to attend. But the good people at the Pod Delusion have given us a podcast of the lecture which, while missing visual aids that were (evidently) used at the lecture, allows us to listen in retrospect.

And I have a bone to pick; my expectations were not met.

As a person who spent several years studying science policy, I was quite interested in the lecture — it steps into an area of expertise for me (science policy), while shining a light on something that I know very little about (the actual policies present and possible within the political framework in the UK). Science policy is complex and multi-faceted, and the lecture would obviously be unable to touch on all aspects of science policy. I was curious to see where the focus would be, and what would be said.

Unfortunately, I would be disappointed. The lecture can be summed from the following (paraphrased) quote: “My vote is decided based on the answer to a single question — which party will provide the largest budget for science?”

The lecture was entirely about public funding for science. Trends in spending, and why spending on science is good for science (duh) and good for the economy. It just barely touched on how that money should be spent. And it worries me — it gives the impression that the spending of taxpayer money is the end-all and be-all of science policy; it’s all just pounds and pence. This is simply not so. While commitments to spend money can certainly be a good bellwether to determine a politician’s approach to science, a pot of money is not a policy.

Budgets exist to support policies. The government wants to take certain actions, and commits money to spend on those actions. If the military budget (in a time of peace) is increased three times over, you can bet that the government is planning a military operation, and that money is being allocated towards achieving the goals of that operation. If the US government increased spending on health care without any programs for health care, would that mean anything? Where would that money go?

Budgets, important though they are, are not policies in and of themselves. One can imagine a policy shift of “do what we are doing now, but throw more money at it”, which seems to be what the people speaking want. I’m not sure that sounds like such a wise policy when put that way — two questions come immediately to mind:

If the current system works, then why would it need more money?
If the current system does not work, how would more money help?

The arguments made at the lecture indicate that the current system works, but lacked arguments regarding how more money would improve things — a simple assumption that more equals better was made. While I’m willing to buy into that assumption, it makes for a weak argument and is unlikely to convince people who do not believe that the science budget should be increased to change their minds.

Moreover, it was a little upsetting that larger policy issues were passed over completely in the charge for more money. As the speakers all earn their money (either directly or indirectly) from the government’s science budget, it was enough to generate a cynical attitude. A politician’s approach to science has a large impact on a wide range of policies — global warming and energy to name just two. A fear of science would lead one to deny climate change in favour of business interests, for example. Or to avoid nuclear power in favour of other technologies that allow the politician to feel safe.

And while all of the above — funding, climate change, energy policy — are all important, perhaps more important is an ability to understand the impacts of technological change, and put policies in place to handle the issues they raise. It is fifteen years since I sat in a dorm room installing Napster on a computer, but the issues created by that technology are only starting to be understood by those in power, and those with vested interests in stalling that technological change have been allowed to engage in stalling tactics (at the average consumer’s expense) for over a decade.

Putting the correct framework to support and police a technology that can transform society is something that can truly encourage the pursuit of such breakthroughs and help reap any economic rewards, while minimizing any damage done by new technologies.

A policy requires a goal, actions to meet that goal, and funds to take those actions. There was a question towards the end of the podcast regarding the need for a cause to support science spending. The answer was a qualified “yes”, but it missed the point. The focus of the lecture — giving science more money — is the result of science policy having a tangible goal, and the cost associated with those actions needed to meet that goal. The goal is not a nice-to-have, but a necessity.

The current goal is to stimulate economic growth, from what I can gather. Science is just one of many areas of investment, and as long as it is being treated as one piece of an “investment portfolio”, it has to play by rules that make it a high-risk, high-reward type of investment.

Knowing how much money the government is planning to spend on science is less important than the knowledge of how they are going to spend it, or deal with the (often unpredictable) discoveries that result from their funding. Those are real science policies. A science budget based on economic indicators is just a piece of an economic policy, with no science policy in sight.

When policies go bad

Several weeks ago, a man was taking a picture of his son. He was approached by a security guard, who accused him of being a pedophile for taking photos of his own son.

Let’s leave aside the ridiculous nature of the whole thing — the paranoid fear that anybody with a camera (ie, everybody) is a pedophile, and the idea that preventing the taking of photos featuring fully clothed children playing accomplishes anything in the fight against child pornography.

The failure of the policy to correctly identify pedophiles is evident. Instead, I would like to look at what the policy tells security guards to do once a “pedophile” is identified.

The big question becomes: Why did the security guard allow the shopper to leave the area with his son? In what world does somebody make a serious accusation of pedophilia against somebody for taking a photograph of a boy, and then allow that person to leave with the same boy.

In other words, mall policy is to allow those identified as pedophiles to leave with children, so long as they do not take photographs on mall property.

The guard called the police and tracked the shopper’s whereabouts, so allowing him to leave with his son has nothing to do with being convinced of the man’s innocence following their conversation. If you have a measure in place to identify pedofiles (however flawed), how can your policy instruct guards to stop said pedophiles from taking photographs but allow them to leave with children?

The answer probably lies in the knowledge that their definition of what makes a pedophile is lacking. If they started to detain parents and separate them from their children (rather than just accuse them of pedophilia), they would have a serious public relations issue on their hands.

This is the crux of the matter. If you have a means in place to identify a group of people, but that means of identification does not allow you to treat those people as they should be treated, find a new way to identify them.

(Photo from

Silent but deadly

I am greatly amused by unexpected policy decisions that come out of scientific and technological progress. Take cars, for example. When the first motorized carriage was invented, neither the inventor nor those around him could possibly imagine the maze of laws and policies that surround automobiles. Traffic laws, environmental issues, taxation on gasoline, road maintenance and bailout money for poorly run carmakers barely scratch the surface of government policies that are strongly influenced by this invention.

Cars, in this sense, are completely fascinating. And they continue to surprise.

The latest surprise on the car block can be found in the electric automobile. Electric engines are much quieter than their gasoline brethren. So much so, in fact, that they pose a risk to pedestrians who are accustomed to gasoline-engine cars. We depend so much on our hearing to identify approaching cars that the silent engines are not just silent, but also deadly. The problem, unsurprisingly, is even more pronounced amongst the blind.

Now researchers are trying different noise-making solutions. The aim is not to recreate the noise of the classic automobile, but to create enough noise to maintain pedestrian safety while minimizing the noise pollution.

An unexpected — but interesting — problem. Tomorrow’s laws might enact both minimum and maximum volume rules upon your next car.

The wrong approach to science policy

I like to talk about policy in relation and reaction to science here at the Big Bad Blog — particularly here in the “Tech and World” category. For most people, at first blush, “policy” brings up thoughts of “government”. To me, the subject is more broad and policy discussions are more likely to touch corporate policies than government ones. But not today. Today I have found a wonderful example of how not to form science policy.

My example comes from the US Energy and Commerce Committee.

Joe Barton is a US Congressman, and the “Ranking Minority Member” of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Dr. Steven Chu is the US Secretary of Energy and a Nobel Prize winning Physicist.

Recently, there was an exchange between the two of them. An excerpt from the transcript found here:

Barton: Dr Chu, I don’t want to leave you out. You’re our scientist. I have one simple question for you in the last six seconds. How did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean?

Chu: (Laughs) This is a complicated story, but oil and gas is the result of hundreds of millions of years of geology and in that time also the plates have moved around. And so, it’s a combination of where the sources of the oil and gas…

Barton: Isn’t it obvious that at one time it was a lot warmer in Alaska and on the North Pole? It wasn’t a big pipeline that we’ve created from Texas and shipped it up there and put it under ground so we can now pump it up?

Chu: No, there are continental plates that have been drifting around throughout the geological ages.

Barton: So it just drifted up there.

Chu: Uh…That’s certainly what happened. It’s a result of things like that.

Chairman: The gentleman’s time has expired.

Following this, Mr. Barton had the following to say on Twitter: I seemed to have baffled the Energy Sec with basic question – Where does oil come from?

Given his position as the ranking minority member on the subject, Mr. Barton’s job should be to create a viable alternative to the Democrat’s energy policy. One that could arguably accomplish certain goals and stand in opposition to the Democrat policy in the eyes of voters, thereby winning back votes to the Republican party.

Mr. Barton should not reveal his own ignorance of science or his distain for scientific advisors in such a fashion.

To be sure, a strong policy on issues which are scientific or technological at their core does not require a full understanding of the underlying science. And in this instance, an understanding of how — in geological terms — oil came to reside beneath Alaska is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that it IS there, and we have no means of replenishing it within our (or, most likely, our species’) lifetime.

But topical advisors — whether in a scientific capacity or otherwise — are needed and need to be respected. They have knowledge that policy makers do not; the experts have devoted their lives to the academic study of these topics, politicians and policy makers have not.

Any policy maker who makes the sort of remarks that Mr. Barton did is to be feared. They will make the wrong decisions, because they cannot weigh the benefits and costs of different policies properly — how can they, when they endeavour to publicly ridicule those who are more knowledgeable than themselves?

Nobody rational would expect the government’s policy makers to reflect their own views — there are too many opposing viewpoints for that to be part of any person’s reality, and the revolving door of policy makers in successive governments mean that this is never to be. But the policy makers should be making informed decisions, which involve listening to the experts and weighing their advice.

If that advice is ignored, so be it. So long as it was understood and considered in light of the other factors involved.

People like to consider Obama to be pro-science, based on his favourable approach to the funding of scientific research. To me, this approach is not pro-science, but pro-innovation. The test of whether or not an administration is “pro-science” is in the respect paid to the consensual opinion of the scientific community where it will impact a government’s position with respect to its poicies.

Such a moment has yet to arrive for Obama — we will see whether or not Obama is pro-science when the scientific community stands behind an unpopular policy.

Can science overcome populism in policy making? That would be interesting to see.