F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
April 2006 
Vol. 35, No. 2



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Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future

National Academy of Sciences, ISBN: 0-309-65463-7, 504 pages, read it at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11463.html

This NAS committee had 20 members, including the President of my university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Senator Lamar Alexander asked (p. vii) the NAS to form a committee “to identify urgent challenges and determine specific steps to ensure that the United States maintain its leadership in science and engineering to compete successfully, prosper, and be secure in the 21st century.”

Alexander’s charge provokes two questions. First, would it be a good thing for the world for the U.S. to maintain its leadership? Second, is there a reasonable chance for the U.S. to maintain its leadership? The committee did not even consider my first question. While I posed it, I will not try to answer it here. The committee implies (but does not specifically state) that the answer to the second question is “yes."

The committee presented (pp. viii and ix) “four recommendations and 20 specific actions to implement them…To emphasize one or neglect another, the members decided, would substantially weaken what should be viewed as a coherent set of high-priority actions to create jobs and enhance the nation’s energy supply in an era of globalization. For example, there is little benefit in producing more researchers if there are no funds to support their research.” Furthermore (p. 2) “The recommendations focus on actions in K-12 education, research, higher education and economic policy…a total of 20 implementation steps for reaching the goals….”

K-12 actions include recruiting 10,000 science/math teachers each year by awarding 4-year scholarships; strengthening the skills of 250,000 teachers through additional training; and increasing the number of high school students who take AP or International Baccalaureate science and mathematics. These are ambitious goals. I question whether there are enough candidates with good skills and motivation for these programs. Would we be taking too many bright students and young adults away from other fields? And what happens to students who have been recruited if there aren’t enough jobs for them? We must include establishment of a “safety net” of scholarships for retraining students for other jobs, if they can’t find jobs in the fields for which they have been recruited.

The committee proposes substantial increases in governmental support for research: more support for early career researchers, and discretionary funding for “high-risk high-payoff research” in the Department of Energy.  Certainly the U.S. and the world face a serious crisis in finding affordable energy. Much could be done now to help alleviate the crisis. But in my view the problems stopping action are political and social, and the NAS committee does not address these problems. I agree that further research on energy might also help.

The committee also proposes substantial increases in the number of Americans earning bachelors and higher degrees in science and engineering by granting many undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships. They also propose changes in visa regulations and in processing visa applications to attract and keep foreign graduate students and post-docs. My comments are the same as on the K-12 proposals: do we want and need so many more scientists and engineers?

I am not competent to comment on the four actions proposed for “Incentives for Innovation.”

You can see another summary of the “Gathering Storm” report in Physics Today, December, 2005, pp. 25-26. Also see Shirley Ann Jackson’s presidential address to AAAS, in Science, 310, 1634, 2005. Jackson explores the interaction between science and society, and supports the Vannevar Bush model which leads to the recommendations of “Gathering Storm.” But I believe we must undertake a fundamental reexamination of our economy and technology. Jackson assumes the validity of the Vannevar Bush model for the 21st century--after all, it worked well in the 20th century. I don’t claim to have better answers, but I want to continue asking “are we on the right track?” Of course, Senator Alexander’s charge to the committee answered this affirmatively.

I contrast the NAS report to Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Of course Diamond’s book is a better read--the only book-by-committee that I know of that has a good style is the King James Bible. Regarding the relative merits of the NAS report and Collapse, Diamond begins by discussing problems in the Bitterroot Valley in southwest Montana. That society hasn’t collapsed yet, but its problems are severe. Diamond then examines many different societies, some that collapsed, and others which managed to survive. He tries to discern the characteristics that led to collapse on the one hand, or survival (with modifications!) on the other. Diamond makes a good start towards answering my question, “are we on the right track?” The NAS report, unfortunately, doesn't.

Joe Levinger
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
e-mail levinj@rpi.edu

The Republican War on Science

By Chris Mooney, Basic Books, New York, 2005, ix+342 pp., hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 0-465-04675-4

       Did you know that

  • The “more than sixty” embryonic stem cell lines whose existence President Bush asserted on August 9, 2001 – or is it twenty-two as later amended – are sufficient raw material for any research, and anyway adult stem cells are just as useful or better for the same research?
  • Though it has never met the challenges of a realistic test, the Strategic Defense Initiative system now being deployed will defend us against a swarm of enemy missiles from a major nuclear power – or at least a few missiles from North Korea – or maybe one stray missile launched by a terrorist group?
  • Women who have undergone abortions have an increased likelihood of contracting breast cancer and mental illness?
  • Condoms are ineffective in protecting against STDs or pregnancy?
  • “Morning-after” contraception encourages promiscuity?
  • Global warming is not taking place, or if it is, it does not present a serious problem, or if it does, the cause is not anthropogenic?
  • Biological evolution is a failed or incomplete theory, and must be replaced or at least supplemented by intelligent-design creationism in K-12 public education?

Every one of these statements, and a lot more like them, is false or is, at the least, contradicted by the overwhelming evidence-based consensus of the community of scientists specializing in the relevant area. And every one of them is the official position of the current Bush administration, or of its allies in Congress, or of a government agency or panel.

Careful selection of facts, sources, or opinions to suit a predetermined policy is common currency in politics, and science has never been immune to this process. The author gives examples from earlier administrations, both Republican and (to a lesser extent) Democratic. But, as the author demonstrates in extenso, misuse of science in the service of politics showed an initial surge during the Reagan administration, and has reached levels previously unimaginable since the 2000 election.

In this much-needed book, Chris Mooney, a gifted and diligent investigative reporter, follows examples of scientific distortion in the name of policy from their origins in interest groups (mainly large corporations and Religious Right organizations) through the Byzantine labyrinths of Washington to establishment as government policy either in law or in administrative practice.

The author begins by defining methods of politically abusing science, which he defines as "any attempt to inappropriately undermine, alter, or otherwise interfere with the scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or ideological reasons." This abuse is manifested in a multitude of ways, which the author distills into eight categories:

  • Undermining science itself. 
  • Suppression or prepublication distortion or truncation.
  • Targeting [e.g., pressuring or smearing] individual scientists.
  • Rigging the process [e.g., packing scientific panels].
  • Errors and misrepresentations.
  • Magnifying uncertainty.
  • Relying on the fringe.
  • Dressing up values in scientific clothing.

In four following chapters, Mooney traces the historical development of political science abuse. He begins with the strong anti-intellectual component of the 1964 Goldwater campaign, and the Republican anger that arose when nearly all prominent scientists who spoke up opposed him on account of his nuclear brinksmanship. Subsequently, backlash to the ban on the use of DDT, the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the cancellation of the SST program led to the founding of the Heritage Foundation and like groups, and to President Nixon’s dissolution of the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee and abolition of the office of the presidential science advisor.

The antiscience movement grew during the Reagan administration. Stung by the scientific opposition to the highly profitable Star Wars program[i]--and especially by the disastrous and false-data-ridden history of the Teller-inspired X-ray laser–the movement found new allies in the Religious Right, whose incorporation into the GOP coalition was perhaps Reagan’s most brilliant achievement. As governor of California, Reagan had nearly succeeded in introducing creationism into the K-12 public school curriculum, and he continued to imply that he supported creationist and other Religious Right measures.

With the coming of the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, science abuse reached new levels. The highly competent, nonpartisan congressional Office of Technology Assessment was abolished in what Mooney calls “a stunning act of self-lobotomy.” Subsequently, such scientific information as individual members of Congress could acquire was wont to come from lobbying organizations, and Rep. Rohrabacher of high-tech Orange County went so far as to say that “scientific truth is more likely to be found at the fringes of science than at the center.”

Mooney goes on to describe the methods by which corporate and religious interests strive–with considerable success–to discredit scientific consensus that is deleterious to their goals. Those interested in the complexities of Washington political relationships and processes will enjoy threading through many examples. Among these are the battles on the harmfulness of second-hand tobacco smoke, global warming, the toxicity of agricultural pesticides and of mercury in fish, the effects of high-fat diets, the regulation of river flows tapped for irrigation, and on the Religious Right side, intelligent-design creationism, stem-cell research, sex education, and emergency contraception.

Along the way, Mooney draws vivid (though not necessarily flattering) portraits of some key players. Among them are Reagan science advisor George Keyworth, GOP tactician Frank Luntz, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), lobbyist Jim Tozzi, creationist Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute, and biologist and anti-choice crusader Joel Brind. But perhaps the saddest personal story is that of John Marburger, whose office could perhaps be best described by the title “Not Assistant to the President.” A man of unusually strong background both in science and in administration, he has now had to bear publicly aired epithets such as “pathetic” and “prostitute” (voiced by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner on the Diane Rehm show).

In a brief final chapter, Mooney proposes what might be done about the dismal current situation. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of a very strong book. Though there are some routine specific suggestions, the author’s central point seems to be, “We must also mobilize the natural defenders of Enlightenment values: scientists themselves.” But if we must defend the Enlightenment--against what, the Dark Ages?--we are indeed in a pickle.

Lawrence S. Lerner
Professor Emeritus, College of Natural Sciences
California State University, Long Beach

[i] I have a particularly poignant connection with SDI (Star Wars.) As an advanced graduate student in 1959-60, I participated in a Defense Department Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, later DARPA) program with the acronym GLIPAR (Guide Line Identification Program for Anti-Missile Research). This six-month paper-and-pencil study brought together accomplished scientists and engineers from universities, defense-oriented corporations, and other institutions. The charge was to evaluate the practicality of long-range missile defense through 1985. In the course of the study, we considered or “invented” (on paper) essentially all of the weapons that have since been proposed, including ground-based and space-based particle accelerators, magnetic-field “domes,” nuclear-tipped antimissiles, kinetic-energy weapons, nuclear cannons, high-powered optical lasers, and X-ray lasers (impressive, I think, in view of the fact that the first laser was not actually demonstrated until a few months later). The clear conclusion was that such defense would not be practicable and that countermeasures would be cheap and simple. The study cost $6 million. I suspect no one has read it since 1960; though much technology has been developed since 1985, the grounds on which our conclusions were based have not changed much. When one compares the $6 million we spent with what has been spent since then, one is appalled.



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