Practice of Science Friday: Proposed Vectors of Scientific Coolness

The US Temple of Science: Home of Coolness

Previously we’ve talked about how scientific research is funded and how researchers may not think that they will be rewarded for studying something that will help out practitioners- because it is not funded nor cool. In some fields, there is not even a directly linkage between practitioners and researchers.

Penalized for Utility
At one time I was asked to be the representative of research users on a panel for the research grade evaluation for a Forest Service scientist. He had been doing useful work, funded by people interested in what he was doing, and seemed to be doing a good job. Now remember that Forest Service research is supposed to study useful, mission-oriented things. One of the researchers on the panel said that the paneled scientist didn’t deserve an upgrade because he was doing “spray and count” research (he was an entomologist). The implicit assumption in our applied work is that excellence is not determined by the user. I asked “but you guys funded him to do this, how can you turn around and say he should be working on something else?” In my own line of work, what was cool was to apply some new theoretical approach from a cooler field and see if it works. I’d also like to point out that I’ve heard this same kind of story from university engineering departments, e.g. “the State (it was a state university) folks asked Jane to investigate how they could solve a problem, but Jane was denied tenure because the kind of research she did wasn’t theoretical enough.”

Beware of Science Tool Fads
Ecologists did this with systems theory which came from a higher field (math). Sometime in the 90’s, I was on a team reviewing one of the Forest Service Stations. There were some fish geneticists at the Station who had done excellent ground-breaking work learning where trout go in streams. Very important to know for a variety of reasons. The Assistant Director told me that that kind of research was passe, and that in the future, scientists would only study “systems”. But, I asked, how can you understand a system without understanding anything in it? To be fair, GE trees for forest applications were also a fad.

Big Science and Big Money
In 1988, I was at the Society of American Foresters Convention in Rochester, New York, and had dinner with a Station Director. I was a geneticist with National Forests at the time. He said that his station wouldn’t be doing much work related to the National Forests any more, as now their scientists could compete for climate change bucks and do real science. (thank goodness this wasn’t a western or southern Station Director).

I’m not being hard on the Forest Service here, it happens to be where I worked (and FS scientists themselves are generally quite helpful).

Right now I’m thinking of different vectors of coolness. There is the abstraction vector, which may go back to the class-based distinctions from the 19th century that we talked about last time. The more abstract the better. But what you study has a coolness vector as well. Elementary particles are better than rocks, and organisms, and people (social sciences) are at the bottom. Tools have a coolness vector of their own. Superconducting super colliders, great. Satellite data and computer models, lidar and so on, good. Counting or measuring plants, not so cool. Giving people interviews, well, barely science. The feedback from users is another vector. Highest is “what users, we are adding to human knowledge?” somewhere along the line is “national governments should be listening to us, but we’re not asking them what’s important” and finally “yes, we determine our research agenda by speaking to the people with problems.”

There is also some kind of feeling that non-interventional “studying distributions of plants” is better than intervening in the lives of plants. Perhaps that is the old-class based vector of coolness transformed into “environmental” vs. “exploitative.”

Given that both of these are improving the environment, which do you think is cooler and why?

Methane Detectives

Collaborative Adaptive Rangeland Management

8 thoughts on “Practice of Science Friday: Proposed Vectors of Scientific Coolness”

  1. Sharon,
    Your chosen metric of what constitutes “cool” is not only decidedly unscientific, the framing of your invitation leaks a decidedly unscientific bias wherever your hypothesis seems to lead. Might I suggest reframing your hypothesis as a recent blog of the Society of Journalist’s question which asks what happens when federal scientists are deprived of the right to speak to reporters without prior approval from their (public service mission, and publicly funded) agencies?

    I run into this frequently, whether asking simple questions, the answers of which get gagged, and especially evident is the flagrant scientific censorship issue.

    I would suggest scientific censorship is far more urgent than what you hazard as to what constitutes “cool.” It appears we are lacking in public information on fundamental matters as to whether there even exists an “opposition party” if all two of them embrace neoliberalism’s decline into fascism.

    “Committee Kills Provisions to Allow Federal Scientists to Talk to Reporters without Prior Approval:

    an excerpt:
    Sunday, October 27, 2019
    Committee Kills Provisions to Allow Federal Scientists to Talk to Reporters without Prior Approval
    Earlier this year Paul Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (H.R. 1709) which, among other things, would have given federal scientists the right to speak to reporters without prior approval from their agencies. A companion bill was introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI).

    One might argue that provision would have done more harm to free speech than good: it would have helped entrench the idea that people have the right to speak only under special circumstances, like having a science degree. It would also have allowed agencies to require the scientists to report the subject of press interview. Having to report an interview, of course, means being prohibited from ever speaking in confidence with a reporter, routinely depriving the public of much information about what is really happening.

    Nevertheless, introduction of the provision could be seen as an important step to raise the idea in Congress that silencing many thousand federal employees in terms of talking to reporters—the effect of the current heavy oversight and permission rules—might not be a good thing. However, the provision apparently offered far too much openness, and it was killed in a mark-up session on October 17 in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

    Congressman Tonko asked the committee to consider instead a new version of the bill that eliminated the right of scientists to speak to reporters without first getting permission. It would have, instead, allowed scientists to, “respond to media interview requests regarding scientific or technical findings from research conducted by, or research related to that conducted by the individual, while ensuring full compliance with limits on disclosure of classified information.”

    The bill would have also allowed the scientists to present opinions beyond the scope of their research findings, if they presented them as personal opinions and not statements on behalf of the agency.
    It also would have required agencies to have clear guidelines for how scientists could respond to media requests that would, “not delay or impede without scientific merit the communication of scientific or technical findings to the media.”

    Even that version was too much.

    Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the ranking member of the committee, offered an amendment to delete those provisions on media requests, citing concern that the legislation would dictate “how federal scientists and agencies handle media requests.” Saying many agencies already have media procedures in place as part of their scientific integrity policies, he said, “Every administration deserves the opportunity to shape policy and message. That’s why we hold elections.”

    [MODERATOR NOTE FROM MK: This comment was submitted twice by David Beebe and twice it was not approved and placed into the trash. Whichever moderator did that, please knock it off. While you may not agree with everything said in this comment, it certainly doesn’t cross any line. Thanks.]

  2. David, of course it’s unscientific! The organization and funding of scientific research is a set of druthers by a complex of conflicting entities and values.

    But to your point, I’ve never been disallowed from speaking to scientists about their research (and The Smokey Wire is just barely a media outlet :)) , but the procedure is to go through their public affairs folks. Most public affairs offices love to give opportunities to highlight research (that’s their job). More coverage = more visibility= possibly more funding. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a metric by which they are measured that includes media stories.

    IMHO this is a partisan tempest in a teapot.

    But why stop at research scientists? Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you have two forest entomologists. One works for FS R&D and one for State and Private. If you think the Research person shouldn’t have to ask permission but the State and Private one should, then you are saying that research study expertise is more important and privileged than other forms of expertise. Which precisely goes back to my piece about “how does research come about and how is it funded, and who decides- on what basis?” We are going to give privilege to some areas of study and not others, not even based on Congress’s predilections but on those of a non-elected community of scientists. What they think is cool is what we get.

    And this is why it is so important to have a direct line between the people with needs, including managers and policy makers, and the design and funding of research.

    • (For gracious sakes, I had no idea these responses even occurred. Could it be an administrator here successfully prevented my two attempts to post this comment, but once slipped through, it seems would’ve re-required me manually checking the boxes for the third time for the purposes of notifying me of followup comments? Any administrator here care to come forward?) But I digress…

      “And this is why it is so important to have a direct line between the people with needs, including managers and policy makers, and the design and funding of research.”

      I couldn’t agree with the quoted statement more. It is not that I don’t see your point — I really, really do — it’s just that we seem to be speaking from two separate planets. My planet is R-10. I have good friends and acquaintances over the last 3 decades on the planet of R-10 with all sorts of credentials in several disciplines, including PhDs who have taxpayer funded salaries and whom are strictly prohibited from sharing all manner of their expertise with me and others without specific prior approval (which may, or may not occur for days, if ever )for fear of disciplinary reprisals or worse. They reported being routinely bullied by the timber shop for even attempting to raise pertinent issues in NEPA EIS’ which potentially interfere with timber targets.

      Re: (“some areas of study and not others?) How about ALL areas of of publicly-funded study on ALL areas of public forest issues? That’s my experience Sharon, and as I said, this level of unmitigated agency censorship is an equal opportunity exercise enjoying bi-zarre, bi-partisan congressional antipathies.

      (thanks in advance if this comment doesn’t get stuffed in Smokey’s spam folder again)

      • David, thanks for this clarification. I think it’s an important topic, especially since the 10th anniversary of this blog is coming up, and this was a method for FS workers to speak to the public. I’d like to start another thread that explores this some more.

        As to the idea that one of us would intentionally not approve your posts, all I can do is quote what my mentor ,Gene Namkoong, once said about the FS “don’t attribute malevolence to the Forest Service when the behavior can be attributed to imperfect people working together imperfectly.”

  3. What bothers me is when scientists compare the 80’s style of “industrial logging” with strict preservation, then use the ‘conclusions’ to blast Forest Service logging projects. It’s like a ‘bait and switch’, to say that all Forest Service logging “destroys ecosystems”.

    • “It’s like a ‘bait and switch’, to say that all Forest Service logging “destroys ecosystems”.

      What’s worse, they’ll never offer real world viable solutions as to how mankind is going to properly and sustainably acquire lumber. I honesty have no idea either, but you’d think the way they come off as having the superior brainpower and worldview compared to anyone else, that they would actually have a real viable clue on how to accomplish that.

  4. “Every administration deserves the opportunity to shape policy and message. That’s why we hold elections.” Apparently this politician thinks that research results constitute “policy and message,” and I suppose it’s part of the employment contract for government scientists to let their work be “spun” to the public. Fortunately not true in court.


    Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has dismissed one of its top organic standards experts because he expressed personal opinions on technical matters, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The case is at odds with Obama administration calls for free exchange of ideas among experts and has broad implications in that the employee did not contradict official policy but was aiding an advisory panel in formulating recommendations for what the official policy should be.

    On November 23, 2010, Mr. Mark D. Keating was terminated from his position as an Agricultural Marketing Specialist with the National Organic Program (NOP) based on communications he had with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in his professional capacity. Keating has twenty years of experience in various aspects of organic farming but was hired only last April, making him a probationary employee with limited rights to appeal his dismissal. PEER is asking USDA to reverse the action.

    Keating’s job description called for “wide latitude to exercise independent judgment” to “influence, motivate, and persuade the very diverse constituent population of the NOP” yet he was dismissed for violating the following directive from his supervisor:

    “The role of the NOP Standards Staff on these calls is to serve as technical experts, provide advice, perhaps pose questions to the NOSB (i.e., have you thought of how we will actually implement this through rulemaking?). Please do not interject personal opinions on issues, especially when no NOP position has been developed.”

    “These contradictory directions only serve to chill candid discussions among experts,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that frank, provocative exchanges can make the resulting policy better. “Federal employees should be more than robots, limited to reciting only the company line.” In calling for Keating to be restored, PEER argues that his termination –

    Violates Obama administration policies encouraging “free and open inquiry” by scientists and other technical specialists; and
    Is at odds with policies adopted by other agencies, such as the Department of Interior, promoting “free exchange of ideas” while formulating policy.

    “It makes no sense that a technical expert in one agency is rewarded for speaking his or her mind but that person would be fired for doing the same thing at USDA,” added Dinerstein, noting that hasty personnel action against Shirley Sherrod this past summer caused USDA great embarrassment. “We need people like Mark Keating in federal service who bring common sense and real world experience to the table.”


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