Meeting Reports on Forum-Sponsored Sessions:2009 April Meeting

Science Policy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Michael Riordan

On Sunday morning, May 3, the Forum co-sponsored with the Forum on Physics and Society an invited session bearing the title "Science Policy: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow." Chaired by Daniel Kleppner, it featured the two President's Science Advisors from the Clinton Administration, Jack Gibbons and Neal Lane; and former Director of the National Bureau of Standards, Lewis Branscomb. An overflow crowd of more than 100 filled the small room to take part in the lively session.

Gibbons, now retired to his home state of Tennessee, led off with his talk on "Lessons from Skating on Thin Ice: the Office of Energy Conservation, OTA, and OSTP." He recalled how he made the move to Washington from doing astrophysics research at Oak Ridge after witnessing the nearby mountaintops coming down and rivers silting up from the mining of coal - and seeing the snows being blackened by soot emitted by the TVA power plants burning it. At the OEC, Gibbons was one of the earliest to recognize the potential of energy efficiency, but recognized that there were "enormous impediments" to its adoption in the marketplace. He found a piddling $50,000 to fund the landmark 1974 APS Summer Study on Energy Efficiency, whose roster included Arthur Rosenfeld of Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Robert Socolow of Princeton among its far-sighted participants. From there Gibbons became the second Director of the Office of Technology Assessement (OTA), set up by Congress to provide brief but knowledgeable assessments of almost anything technological - from solar energy to the effects of nuclear war. It was at OTA that he learned a crucial political lesson, that "appearance counts for a lot in Washington." After Clinton was elected, Gibbons was named Science Advisor and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), largely through the influence of his fellow - Tennesseean Al Gore. Originally focused on scientific issues related to nat ional defense, OSTP became increasingly involved in health, the environment , and industrial competitiveness during the 1980s. With the Cold War's end, such issues became the primary focus during Gibbons's tenure.

Lane, currently a University Professor at Rice and Senior Fellow at its James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, spoke next about "The Civic Scientist Era," sounding a theme he has spoken and written about frequently since serving as Clinton's second Science Advisor. Physics has provided a great number of civic scientists,he said, following in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, the first scientist to serve the nation in such a role. A civic scientist, Lane said, engages the public in forums from schools to political circles. Among other things, it involves using one's scientific expertise for the greater benefit of the country, whether in defense, the environment, health, or other national concerns. He noted that we have lived through a "golden age of science," lasting from roughly 1950 to 2000, which witnessed Cold-War-driven initiatives in basic research as well as unprecedented—and probably never-to-be-repeated—success in industrial research. Following the abrupt decline in scientists' influence during the Bush years, said Lane, he looked forward to its revival under President Obama. But he cautioned his audience not to take this resurgence for granted, saying current Science Advisor John Holdren needs "all the help he can get" from other scientists. Here physicists can take the lead, but they will be most effective if they recognize the interdisciplinary nature of science and collaborate with colleagues in other fields. "We must hang together, or we will hang separately," quipped Lane, a quote he thought had originated with Franklin.

Rounding out the thought - provoking session, Branscomb, formerly Chair of the National Science Board and now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, spoke about "Science as a Model for Rational, Legitimate Government Capable of Meeting Society's Grand Challenges" (Branscomb's talk appears in the October 2009 issue of the Forum on Physics and Society Newsletter). He began by noting that both democracy and modern science are products of the 18th-century Enlightenment, with a common emphasis "on reason and openness rather than religious and political authority." In a democracy, he observed, the government must be responsive to a well-informed public. The only way our elected leaders can be seen as legitimate is by the public becoming aware of and endorsing their opinions and activities. But how well informed can the public be regarding the challenges that involve modern science and technology? Branscomb cited recent polls indicating how poorly informed people actually are about science and technology. For example, according to a 2008 poll by The Public Agenda, people recognize the energy challenge is here to stay, but are largely unwilling to make any major changes or sacrifices in their personal lives to deal with it. They support efforts to reduce global warming—but only if these measures don't increase their costs of driving. Over half of all the Americans polled could not identify a specific renewable energy source, and about a third could not come up with a fossil fuel. In closing, Branscomb argued, somewhat idealistically, for a return to "Jeffersonian science" (a phrase he attributed to Gerald Holton)—creative, long-term research relevant to society's most difficult challenges, such as climate change and energy consumption.

*Note: 2009 April Meeting FHP session pictures taken by George Zimmerman.

Note Added: This article represents the views of the author, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.