Two Illuminating Interviews

By cjohnson | February 26, 2006 12:57 pm

It is worth taking the time out to listen to one of the reports from this morning’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” on NPR. The page summarizing the report is here. There are two interviews of some length and depth. (They are longer than the extracts you may have heard on the radio, so have a listen again, if interested.)

One is from Dr. Donald Kennedy, the editor-in-chief of ‘Science Magazine’. He does a good job of summarizing the discussions that have been taking place about the Bush administration’s attitude to science and scientists (over a wide range of issues: climate change, energy policy, the Environmental Protection Agency, etc… many of these have been discussed on this blog), he applauds some of the recent funding announcements from the administration on science investment and education, but has a lot more to say about the big picture of science and science policy in this country. See also a recent editorial he wrote at this link.

The other interview is with Dr. John Marburger, the administration’s science advisor. He spends a lot of the first part of the interview discussing his vision of what the new “competitiveness initiatives” are all about. He also talks a lot about the education initiatives…. I was particularly interested to hear about their efforts to encourage real scientists and engineers to come into the high school classroom and talk about what they do…give students a chance to meet and talk to real scientists. This is good…..You know how important I think this is from all the blogging about that I do on it. I hope that many of us take advantage of any support that is to be given to make this sort of thign happen more. Look out for it please!

His main response to the issues that Kennedy raised is remarkable. He basically said that the criticisms by the scientists are irrelevant. He has other things to say, which you should listen to as well, but his message there sounds to me to be rather confused….how can you dismiss what the scientists say and still claim that there is a dialogue? The interviewer notes this, but Marburger simply steers away from the sore spots and pretty much says that everything is fine and dandy, it’s all under control, the administration (e.g. on climate change) have “strategies” and they are getting on with. Sigh.

Well, have a listen. The interviews themselves, but also the contrasts between them, are illuminating. Kennedy seems to think that this administration is particularly bad with regards science policy, and as a result the scientists are more vocal, and the arguments are lot more heated than before, while Marburger says that it is not the administration tha is responsible for the increased tensions in these debates, but the fact that there are more places where science is relevant to societies problems. He says -and here I totally agree (see my many posts on this)- that this is why everybody needs to become more educated in basic science.

Whatever the reasons for the extra tension in the science-meets-politics arena -it is probably a little bit of both- I really think that we should not be looking forward to going back to a time when science was less on the political agenda than it is now. Hopefully it is here to stay, and it is the quality of the debates (and the education that everyone has about the debates) that should be improved as we move forward.


  • robert

    Sad to say, it is the outcome of a debate that is of more consequence than its quality. Archimedes doubtless found this when debating the disturbance of his circles by an anonymous Roman soldier.

  • Clifford

    Sure…. but the quality of a debate affects the outcome. Quality includes for example, getting the facts right….. if those in your constituencies are in a position to assess the quality of those facts….. it forces you to do a better job of constructing your arguments more honestly, researching the facts, not being able to hide reports or dismiss them as irrelevant….

    …..better debate…better outcome.


  • Uncle Al

    The Carter Administration is generally acknowledged as having been the worst of the 20th century – incompetent domestic and foreign policies, economic ruin, leadership by pablum. El Ultimo Presidente Boosh appears to have the corresponding 21st century slot all to himself with 94 years to go, and a good shot at being the most ruinous President in the history of the Republic. Bush is impressive even given Herbert Hoover.

  • Plato

    Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier when the city was taken. The traditional story is that the mathematician was unaware of the taking of the city. While he was drawing figures in the dust, a Roman soldier stepped on them and demanded he come with him. Archimedes responded, “Don’t disturb my circles!” The soldier was so enraged that he pulled out his sword and slew the great geometer. When Archimedes was buried, they placed on his tombstone the figure of a sphere inscribed inside a cylinder and the 2:3 ratio of the volumes between them, the solution to the problem he considered his greatest achievement.

    I thought it good that I get a least one side of the conversation in context:)

    From a climate perspective this issue would tarnish other perspectives as well I am sure. There are no borders separating what is being viewed, when the outcome had been stalled to signing Kyoto, and a position upheld by scientists suporting this “illusion” of scientific origins.

    That it was money motivated without doing the research to alternate energies, hurt the impression people might have of the governement?

    So that had to be addressed.While the focused had been detailed in the circles I guess Archimedes did not see the danger? :)

  • Amara

    I don’t think Archimedes was oblivious… and Marcus Claudius Marcellus was not oblivous to Archimedes’ value either or he wouldn’t have ordered that Archimedes be taken alive. Archimedes had reportedly invented the mechanical cranes which were used to overturn a number of Roman ships so that his Syracuse city could withstand the three-year Roman seige. When Syracuse was finally stormed, his math problem was probably figuring a new series of levers and pulleys…

  • janet

    I thought some of Marburger’s statements were really quite bizarre, especially what he had to say about global warming. Apparently he’s missed the fact that the Bush administration has consistently denied and tried to suppress evidence of global warming.

  • spyder

    Maybe Marburger didn’t get the memo–wasn’t that Deutsch’s jog?–but this newstory surfaced today as yet another example of the administration hoping that industry paid for research trumps actual scientific findings:
    the following is from a yahoo AP version of same report:

    “But in the run-up to the decision, the journal Environmental Health reported that industry-commissioned scientists withheld data suggesting even small amounts of the known carcinogen, which is used in the steel, aerospace, electroplating and industries, can be deadly.

    “We think we have an example in which all of the standard elements of scientific distortion are present: hiding behind the lawyers, statistical manipulation, failure to publish … all that kind of stuff which comes right out of the tobacco industry playbook,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, one of the report’s authors.

    Kate McMahon-Lohrer, an attorney at the firm Collier Shannon Scott and counsel for the industry group Chromium Coalition, vehemently disagreed with the Environmental Health report.

    “That charge is absolutely and completely false and it’s outrageous and libelous,” she said.

    In a telephone interview, McMahon-Lohrer acknowledged that hexavalent chromium raises workers’ cancer risk at high doses, but said there was debate about the risk from low doses. She denied any industry-sponsored research was withheld from OSHA.

    David Michaels, who heads the project on scientific knowledge and public policy at George Washington University and was a senior author of the report, said studies commissioned by a chromium industry group showed even low doses elevate cancer risk.

    “Industry had commissioned a study which looked at newer facilities where exposures were much better-controlled and that study showed that workers with relatively low exposure to hexavalent chromium had greatly increased risk of lung cancer,” Michaels said by telephone.”

  • Kristin

    There was also this article (free access!) in the New York Times magazine last September about this conflict. There’s a lot in it about Marburger, who seems elusive to me. He’s kind of like Chance the gardener from Being There: surely he couldn’t be as unbothered by the administration’s disregard for scientific facts as what he’s letting on. There’s this quote in the article:

    To many in the scientific community, it is unfathomable that Marburger would risk his reputation by staying on and continuing to defend the administration. Others see the fact that he has remained in office as indicative of nothing more than the very real compromises involved in formulating science policy. ”If you haven’t been there and lived in the White House, and thought deeply about your role and the ethical dilemmas you incur, such as whether or not to resign, then it might be quite difficult to understand what’s happened with Marburger,” says Neal Lane, Bill Clinton’s second science adviser and a prominent supporter of the U.C.S. petition. Those who have worked closely with Marburger agree that his response is based on a careful cost-benefit analysis. ”The choice is between Jack and a Neanderthal,” says one former Bush administration official, whose livelihood still depends on the federal government and thus spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. ”The scientific community will never understand that.”

    This would seem to imply a hostility to science in the administration so great that one has to pick one’s battles very carefully, lest the messenger be killed.


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