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The Sciences

A Science Policy Bash

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFebruary 1, 2006 9:30 PM

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Sounds like fun, no? Yesterday in the Times, Cornelia Dean reported on a science policy meeting for members of Congress:

More than 100 committee staff members, Congressional aides and at least one senator, Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, crammed into a basement meeting room. With all of the seats filled, people leaned on walls, sat on the floor and spilled out into the hall.

I'm glad members of Congress are getting cramped together to think about how they ought to structure their science advice, even if the necessary revival of the Office of Technology Assessment still seems quite far off in the distance. But what I found really interesting was Dean's reporting on an apparent attempt to undermine this event:

Robert Ferguson, who runs the Center for Science and Public Policy, which also presents briefings to Congress, argued that one of the speakers, Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science, had himself politicized the field in editorials on the dangers of climate change, marking him as having political motives.

He sent critiques of Dr. Kennedy by e-mail to prospective members of the audience so they could "decide if attending the event is worth your time." This is the same Center for Science and Public Policy--a policy center under the umbrella of the conservative group Frontiers of Freedom--that has questioned whether we need to worry about mercury in fish. And of course, the group takes a contrarian stance on climate science. For examples, see here for its "Collected Senate Speeches on Climate Change Science by Senator James Inhofe" (that certainly will be one for the history books!), and here for one of its attempts to undermine the "hockey stick."

And there's more. Here's the ExxonMobil public policy giving report for 2004. Frontiers of Freedom received a total of $ 250,000 according to the document, all of it related in some way to work on climate change. Of that, $ 70,000 went to "Science Center & Climate Change." Though the names aren't exactly the same, Frontiers of Freedom doesn't appear to have a "science center" other than the CSPP.

I would argue that Cornelia Dean probably should have told her readers much more about CSPP than she does. But in any case, I find it revealing that this group doesn't like the editor-in-chief of Science briefing members of Congress on how to get their science advice.

In the absence of the Office of Technology Assessment, think tanks like CSPP have moved in to fill the science advisory vacuum, at least for some members of Congress. (For an example of the group's apparent influence on congressional presentation of science, see here.) But whereas OTA produced carefully reviewed consensus reports reflecting the views of a range of experts, the take of a group like CSPP on matters of science is, er, less balanced, to say the least.

Yet if Congress doesn't reinstall and re-institutionalize credible scientific advice, we should not be surprised if members turn to more agenda-driven sources of information. Nor should we be surprised to hear a lot of sound and fury about science--with contrasting and incompatible scientific positions being argued by non-expert members of Congress--instead of a broad acceptance of scientific consensus findings and then an honest attempt to use those to help formulate policy.

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