Scientists and Science Agencies:
Keeping the Bastards Honest
Inaugural Eureka Conference
Ballarat, Dec. 3-4, 2004
Western democracies have become prone to the disease of "spin". Political parties and politicians, government regulatory agencies, government science providers, University research centres, and NGO and industry lobby groups have all become expert at the art of capturing public opinion by the use of modern communication and advertising techniques. By such means, frisbee-science is propagated, and a claimed public "consensus" is built for particular courses of action or inaction.
This poses a huge problem both for individual scientists and for science in general.
First, science does not, and will never, advance by the application of consensus, let alone by responding to majority public opinion. Quite the contrary: most significant scientific advances are made by those who step outside the conventional wisdom.
Second, the credibility of the scientific method as a values-free and objective procedure for - first - analysing, and - second - solving societal problems is dangerously undermined by the now widespread use of spin-doctoring to disseminate scientific results.
Aware of these dangers, different countries have discussed or instituted several different mechanisms whereby the integrity of scientific advice used in policy-making can be audited and thereby have its value protected.
Environmental Audit Agency
In November, 2001 a long-standing Danish social-democrat government was replaced by a coalition government which combined the free-market Venstre and Conservative parties. On coming to power, the new coalition abolished more than 100 special-interest government-supported advisory boards and councils, including about a dozen in the environmental field. At the same time, the incoming government created a new Institute of Environmental Assessment, and appointed Bjorn Lomborg as its founding Director.
According to calculations from the Danish Ministry of Finance, protection of the environment costs Danish society about 3% of GDP annually, about the same as the total expenses consumed each year by the Danish health services. The purpose of creating the Environmental Assessment Institute was to "get the most environment for the money".
The Institute has achieved its objectives by obtaining a general overview of the environmental situation, and by assessing specific environmental activities or measures referred to it. The Institute aims to increase the objectivity of the environmental debate and ensure that decisions in the environmental field are taken on the best possible scientific and economic foundation. In addition to advising on Danish policy matters, the Institute also provides reviews, from a Danish perspective, of environmental proposals from agencies such as the United Nations.
Should there be reluctance in Australia to set up a separate scientific audit group, a step in that direction could nonetheless be made by setting up a Division of Scientific Audit within the present Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). Such a move would be administratively simple, have lower costs, carry the same independence as the ANAO which reports to Parliament direct (rather than the Government), and could probabably be done under existing ANAO legislation.
More information - http://imv.dk/Default.asp?ID=65
Pros - such an agency could be funded in Australia with money saved by closing down the Australian Greenhouse Office, whose essential tasks it could subsume at much lesser cost.
Cons - politically difficult to achieve; sets up yet another bureaucracy which will have a self-serving interest in protecting its own budget, turf and future.
Peer Review of Reports from Science Regulatory Agencies
Recently, the US government proposed an extensive, new, peer-review procedure for scientific reports from regulatory agencies. Though some US government agencies already practice peer review, the new proposals are for the first government-wide, mandated standards.
On September 15, 2003 (Federal Register), the White House Office of Management (WHOM) proposed that all significant regulatory science documents should in future go through mandatory external peer review in order to alleviate potential conflicts of interest. The goal is fewer lawsuits and a more consistent, competent and credible regulatory environment.
Under the scheme, each government agency will be required to report annually to the WHOM on the documents it expects to issue over the coming year, including a plan for external peer review which includes the disclosure of the names of the peer-reviewers. WHOM has advised that it will also expect non-federal researchers in universities and other places to adhere to the same standards, which must pass muster under the 2001 Data Quality Act.
The Data Quality Act was a law enacted to ensure that federal agencies use and disseminate accurate information.
Opponents of the WHOM proposals warn that the new standards could paralyze new regulations, especially on issues such as global warming or air or water pollution, where the risks and benefits are complex, politically charged and potentially costly.
More information - http://www.ombwatch.org/article/archive/232
Pros - puts some much needed salt on the tails of bureaucrats who, at the moment, are generally unaccountable for the accuracy of the science advice that they give.
Cons - peer-review is often highly unsatisfactory, because of the ease with which the method can be "corrupted" by groups of highly networked experts in particular fields.
Sense of Congress Declarations
From time to time, members of the United States House of Representatives convene committees to examine evidence, recruit supporters and assemble a bill to be voted on which contains a broad policy outline intended to guide future legislation on a particular matter. Whether passed or not, these bills have no legislative weight as such but they serve as a valuable vehicle by which cross-party opinion reaches the press, public and government administration. Effectively a Sense of Congress bill says - "here's our agreed opinion on matter X, whether you want to hear it or not".
One of the best known of these bills recently has been the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which aims to prod Congress in the direction of introducing carbon taxes and signing the Kyoto Accord. So far, whenever put, this bill has been defeated, most recently in October, 2003 (55-43 rejection).
In response, Marlo Lewis of the Competititve Enterprise Institute, Washington, has proposed that Congress consider a more sensible proposal towards a State of Congress declaration on climate change, as follows.
SENSE OF CONGRESS - It is the sense of Congress that the United States should promote prosperity, public health, and environmental improvement, at home and abroad by promulgating the following message:
Given the growing evidence that any anthropogenic global warming will likely be at the low-end (1.4°C, 2.5°F) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change' (IPCC) projections, the weak and even fictional basis of climate disaster scenarios, the high cost and negligible benefit of mandatory carbon dioxide reductions, the manifest superiority of no-regrets approaches that make societies safer by making them wealthier, the high susceptibility of energy rationing schemes to special interest manipulation and political abuse, the abundantly documented ecological and nutritional benefits of CO2 aerial fertilization, and the vital importance of affordable energy to human flourishing, Kyoto-style regulation is not a responsible policy option.
This technique might be applicable within the Australian political scene, perhaps through the mechanisms of private members' bills in the lower house, or as Committee references in the Senate. In either case, determined leadership would be necessary from one or more MPs or Senators.
More information - http://www.cei.org/gencon/025,04292.cfm
Pros - provides high level discussion and analysis of important issues in a quasi-judicial setting; ability to call and question witnesses (including scientists) in a public setting.
Cons - no tradition in Australia; effectiveness in the Australian setting doubtful.
In 1967, Arthur Kantrowitz, a Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College, proposed the creation of a U.S. Science Court as a mechanism to "subject public alarms claiming a scientific basis to the most probing questions (that) scientists can devise".
Kantrowitz suggested that a Science Court would:
not be involved in
conjectures that have implications for public policy are as strongly
influenced by ideologies when advanced by scientists as when they are
advanced by non-scientists
seek expert scientists
with opposing ideologies to formulate probing questions about the matter
before the court in ways that distinguish conjectures from knowledge;
enforce a new norm
whereby any person claiming scientific credentials and appearing as a
witness before the Court be required to answer factual questions from both
the public and from expert adversaries; and
to determine issues, would use juries comprised of scientists of distinction drawn from disciplines OTHER than the main discipline area of the subject under dispute.
were taken seriously to the point that a Presidential Task Force laid out
detailed suggestions for procedures for such an institution (Science, v.153). In
the end, however, "whisperings around Washington in that small circle called the
science policy community" successfully opposed this invasion of their turf.
It can be firmly predicted that many senior bureaucrats and others in Australia would similarly see a Science Court as a threat to their areas of influence, and would therefore lobby against any such proposal.
More information - http://www.the-scientist.com/yr1998/feb/opin_980202.html
Articles in Science magazine (v. 153, 1967, p. 763; v. 156., May 12, 1967, p. 763-764; v. 193, August 20, 1976, p. 653-656; v.194, Oct. 1, 1976, p. 29-35; v.194, Oct 22, 1976, p. 389-396)
Pros - could produce a system which provides genuinely independent and objective assessment of alternative policies for environmental protection.
Cons - expensive; legalistic (with all that that implies).
Publication of an agnostic, evidence-based environmental journal
There are many established environmental journals from all the major science publishers which would claim that they publish high quality, evidence-based environmental science.
In truth, because of societal pressure and often "network" refereeing, many of these journals are reluctant to publish papers which are critical of the current politically correct fashion on particular issues. This tendency is particularly strong also in leading multi-disciplinary journals such as Science and Nature, which in recent years have published an increasing number of poor quality, ideological papers; because of the prestige attached to their publication in such journals, these papers come to carry influence way beyond their merits.
In Australia, a small group of scientists is already in an advanced state of planning for the publication of such a journal on the web, and perhaps also in printed form. The journal will have as its guiding philosophy the publication of original, refereed papers on environmental matters which are evidence-based, together with discussion and critical analysis of environmental papers which have been published elsewhere. The journal might be linked to an established web site, such as the Australian e-journal Online Opinion (http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/)
A pilot issue of the journal has been assembled, with a theme of Great Barrier Reef science. More rapid progress in establishing this journal requires the availability of enough finance to secure professional editorial and publication services.
More information - consult with Bob Carter or Jennifer Marohasy.
Pros - would ensure that more of the alternative, evidence-based viewpoints were heard on contentious environmental issues; provides a resource of information of use worldwide, but (via the web) especially to Australians living in isolated areas.
Cons - must be of top professional standard, with good refereeing, and therefore expensive to setup and maintain.
Australia is a far-flung country and society. Establishing strong and widespread support for any moves toward a more rational, evidence-based way of dealing with major environmental issues requires the establishment of a wide network of supporters and contacts.
One way of accomplishing this would be to develop a "Eureka Caravan". This could either have solid reality in the shape of a suitably kitted-out bus or rail carriage, or could be more notional.
In either case, the objective would be to hold regular Eureka environmental briefings and meetings right across Australia. Either (i) an annual meeting (similar to the inaugural Ballarat meeting) could be held at a different venue, and with a different focal topic, each year; and/or (ii) a Eureka secretariat could organize regular lecture and meetings tours across the country on environmental topics of interest.
More information - discussion at the Eureka Conference.
Pros - could be organised within a wide range of levels of available support; would help to establish rapidly a strong network of interested individuals.
Cons - expensive; requires an organising body; requires availability of knowledgeable communicators.
Professor R.M. Carter
(November 23, 2004)