Let’s Get the Public in the Science Priority Pipeline


For those who haven’t heard, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth by the Big Science community about sequestration. Here’s a post by Roger Pielke, Jr. on his blog. What we don’t talk about is why things people want are not funded and things scientists want, are.. or why the public is not involved in scientific priorities. After the excerpt from the blog post below, I’ll get to an example that I think illustrates the issue.

The scientists, and science policy scholars in particular, exist to generate evidence in support of that axiom in order to keep public funds flowing. Both conceits are problematic in science policy.

In a paper published in Minerva last year I explored the origins and symbolic significance of the phrase “basic research” (read it here in PDF). In that paper I argued that the phrase originated about 1920 in the context of the US Department of Agriculture, where “research was the basic work” of the agency. The phrase was shortened to “basic research” which ironically enough meant what we today call “applied research.”

Over time the phrase became part of the linear model of innovation, shown in the figure at the top of this post. The model is faith based, meaning that the relationship of basic research funding to societal benefits is taken as an “axiom” which often finds its expression in a misreading of economics. Scientists often demand a privileged place for science in government budgets based on claims that in “basic research” lies the key to growth and prosperity for all.

Unfortunately, the relationship of so-called “basic research” and outcomes like economic growth and other societal benefits remains poorly understood. For instance, in 2007, Leo Sveikauskas of the Bureau of Economic Analysis surveyed the economy-wide returns on R&D (here in PDF) and found a complex picture at odds with the elegance of the linear model:

Returns to many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero . . . Many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all, and do not belong in investment.
The exceptions that he cites include federal R&D in health, agriculture and defense — all instances of mission-oriented applied research.

Now here is another interesting article from New Scientist, publicly available and well worth reading, on a Resources For the Future study on how the U.S. is doing with climate change. The title is “how Obama Will Deliver His Climate Promise”. I don’t know about you, but friends and strangers feel comfortable lecturing me at how poorly the US is doing..
but what I found interesting on the topic “who funds whom to study what, and why?” is the box in the article.

Fixing America’s gas leak

Measured over a century, methane has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide – so the last thing the planet needs is for the stuff to be escaping into the atmosphere. Yet that’s happening on a massive scale in the US, through leaks from production wells and the pipes that distribute natural gas.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates total losses at 2.4 per cent of the gas being extracted, but the true figure could be higher. A survey in Colorado, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last year suggested the region’s wells were losing some 4 per cent of what is produced.

Putting firmer numbers on the problem is the goal of a study led by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in New York City. It should have figures for production wells by the end of March, and for the entire distribution system by January 2014.

With better numbers in hand, the government could demand the leaks are plugged. “It is quite possible to produce natural gas with minimal ‘fugitive’ emissions,” says Mark Brownstein of the EDF. “It may just be a question of operational and maintenance practice.”

So this piece hits on two of my favorite topics..

1) if EPA and NOAA came up with different numbers, shouldn’t there be a joint story for why the numbers are different?
2) If this question is really important to the US fighting climate change, why isn’t someone besides EDF funding it? (Do we think they are objective?)

Which reminds me of this article in the Denver Post “Hickenlooper argues in D.C. for state regulation of fracking.”

Hickenlooper, a former geologist, talked about “fugitive methane” — poisonous gas escaping during gas production. He said Colorado officials are working with Colorado State University on a study to measure air quality in different seasons in oil-producing parts of the state to “understand the consequences.”

Doesn’t it seem like if natural gas is going to dig us out of our climate change hole in the short term, we would spend more federal bucks on ensuring it’s safe.. say compared to “basic science.” If we need to understand something vitally important to our energy future and to human health and the nevironment, hodgepodgery is not a good enough strategy. In my opinion.

1 thought on “Let’s Get the Public in the Science Priority Pipeline”

  1. It was widely reported in early this month that a report, written by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (www.bcse.org/), shows that 2012 US carbon-dioxide emissions were at their lowest levels since 1994. Carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and have fallen by 13 percent since then.


Leave a Comment