19 January 2015

Five Modes of Science Engagement

In my book, The Honest Broker, I describe four modes of engagement by scientists and other experts. They are ideal types and shown in the figure above. The different modes are a function of how we think about democracy and how we think about the proper role of science in society. The book gets into some more detail, of course, on the theoretical background. Here I respond to a few recent requests to provide a high level overview of the different roles, motivated by a workshop I attended last week at the National Academy of Sciences organized by their roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences -- on Twitter #NASinterface. I also list some thoughts based on my experiences engaging experts on these roles over the past several years.

The Pure Scientist

This role doesn't really exist in the real world. Well, maybe it does for a brief moment when a beginning graduate student finds someone willing to pay them to do research that s/he is curious about, But in the real world, grant applications and funding comes with expectations of impact and relevance. In any case, if the pure scientist really did exist, the role is defined by a desire not to engage. So for now, let's leave it aside (it'll come back shortly in the context of stealth issue advocacy).

The Science Arbiter

This role supports a decision maker by providing answers to questions that can be addressed empirically, that is to say, using the tools of science.  We are most familiar with science arbiters in the form of expert advisory committees, such as those of the NRC or FDA. Dan Sarewitz and I outlined a formal methodology for thinking about and evaluating this type of role (here in PDF). Science arbitration is common and there are many examples of it being done more or less well, and on issues people care about is never far from political influences.

The Issue Advocate

The defining characteristic of this role is a desire to reduce the scope of available choice, often to a single preferred outcome among many possible outcomes. Issue advocacy is fundamental to a healthy democracy and is a noble calling. Advocacy among scientists is often viewed pejoratively, but I don't think it necessarily has to be. Scientists are citizens and as experts have an important role to play in public debates. Advocating for candidates, policies or even directions of travel is worth doing. I am very precise in my use of this term.

The Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives

The defining characteristic of the honest broker is a desire to clarify, or sometimes to expand, the scope of options available for action. I often use the examples of travel websites like Expedia as examples of honest brokers in action. Sometimes people get caught up on the word "honest" here -- what is important is the commitment to clarify the scope of possible action so as to empower the decision maker. Sometimes honest brokers are unnecessary in a political setting, for instance, when advocacy groups collectively cover the scope of available choice. But sometimes policy making would benefit from greater clarity on choice, or even the invention of choices previously unseen.

You may have noticed that the title of this post promised five modes of engagement and I've only described four. There is a fifth, what I call the Stealth Issue Advocate. This role is characterized by the expert who seeks to hide his/her advocacy behind a facade of science, either pure scientist or science arbiter. This role seeks to swim in a sea of politics without getting wet. It is the fastest route to pathologically politicizing science. It is also what gives scientists as advocates a bad name.

Some points about the above based on my experiences engaging on this framework around the world over much of the past decade.
  • In this framework, there are no hidden or alternative roles. This is it. Not long ago a report on science communication used this framework but claimed that I had forgotten a category, that of the "science communicator" who simply wants to elevate the quality of public debate. Nope. There is no such thing. That is a fast track to stealth advocacy.
  • It is really hard, especially in highly political settings, for any one individual to play the role of science arbiter or honest broker. This is due to the fact that there are often many views on what "the science" says (including uncertainties and areas of ignorance) or what the possible scope of action looks like. In addition, each of us has biases and idiosyncrasies which can make it difficult to see an issue from multiple perspectives. Even further, it is a rare policy issue where anyone knows everything of relevance. 
  • Science arbitration and honest brokering of policy alternatives are best done by committee, ideally, by legitimate, authoritative bodies which are well-connected to policy makers.  
  • Where stealth advocacy is concerned, the expert's intent really doesn't matter. I had lunch last week with a couple of members of the National Academy of Sciences who told me that on the issue that they have expertise in, they just want to improve public understanding, and not weigh in on any "side" in the political debate. However, when an issue is already deeply politicized, science is typically already associated with the different "sides." In such a context, any statement by an expert about science absent political context will readily be appropriated in advocacy, regardless of the expert's intention. Stealth advocacy is the result.
  • It is a responsibility of the expert to be informed about engagement before engaging. It does no good to explain how you wish the world worked or how it should work a s an excuse for not understanding real-world political context.
  • A well-functioning system of decision making and expertise will find all four roles well populated. Context of course matters for what roles are more or less important. The proper role of an expert in the face of an approaching tornado will be very different than in the context of setting a national abortion policy.
  • Context will determine the proper roles for any particular expert. Inevitably, most of us will find ourselves in advocacy roles. For instance, I am a strong advocate for certain climate policies (e.g., a carbon tax), but also for FIFA reform and (soon) for abolishing "sex testing" in the Olympic sports. Simultaneously, I have been playing a supporting role on a NRC committee tasked with science arbitration and honest brokering. When I do genealogy research for fun, that might be considered pure science. 
  • Because advocacy is often a default role and it is so seductive, there is a need to support the institutionalization of mechanisms of science arbitration and honest brokering. In most highly political issues, there does not appear to be any shortage of advocates. In fact, at times our most authoritative science advisory bodies are seduced into playing the role of issue advocate, leading to a loss of their legitimacy in public debates.
  • There are strong incentives for science to be politicized but also for politics to become scientized. Science has great standing among the public. This standing can be seductive and work against thinking about proper roles and responsibility.
  • Ultimately, I tell my students that I really don't care what roles they decide to play (although I do recommend against stealth advocacy!) over their careers. What matters is having an open discussion about roles and contexts, and developing a sophisticated understanding of politics. 
  • Ultimately, scientific integrity matters because we need expertise in decision making. But maintaining scientific integrity requires careful attention to roles and responsibilities, and sometimes choosing a path that facilitates decision making rather than trying to determine it.
I am happy to discuss this topic further in the comments or on Twitter. There is obviously a lot more in the book, and in various papers and case studies.

14 January 2015

News Flash: European Commission CSA Reinstated, Maybe

From Scotland comes this surprising news:
The European Commission has agreed to retain the role of EU Chief Scientific Adviser but it is not expected to stop the Scots incumbent in the position from leaving, it is claimed.

Details of the u-turn were divulged to Scottish Tory MEP Dr Ian Duncan by First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans.
There has been no official announcement from the European Commission. In the EC, nothing is final until it is official, and even then subject to a U-turn. Stay tuned.

Regardless what happens, an reinstatement of the Commission CSA should not preempt a much needed conversation about the future of science advice in Europe. It is not enough to have a symbolic office.

05 January 2015

The Future of Science Advice in Europe

My latest Bridges column is out, and it discusses the future of science advice in Europe following the termination of the office of chief scientific advisor to the European Commission. Here is an excerpt:
In short, the CSA under President Barosso was largely powerless and disconnected. This state of affairs was not the fault of Glover, who took on the CSA role with energy and enthusiasm. The uncomfortable reality is that establishment of the CSA office was a symbolic gesture towards scientific advice, rather than representing any substantive commitment to improving science advice in Europe (see this paper for background).

From this perspective, President Juncker has actually done the scientific community a favor. For the past three years, most scientific organizations and their leaders seemed perfectly content with a symbolic, ineffectual CSA in the Commission. However, the termination of the office has forced a conversation that probably should have been occurring in far more prominent settings. Such a conversation is now underway (see, e.g., this special issue of the European Journal of Risk Regulation) and should continue.

President Juncker has yet to release details on how his administration is to structure advisory mechanisms, noting through a spokesperson: “President Juncker believes in independent scientific advice. He has not yet decided how to institutionalize this independent scientific advice.” However the Commission eventually structures its offices, a few issues will no doubt continue to be at the center of debates over science advice in Europe. Here I suggest several . . . 
Read it here.

Comments welcomed!

18 December 2014

A Proposed Professional Masters in Science & Technology Policy at University of Colorado

As I've occasionally mentioned on Twitter, we here at the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research are proposing to turn our graduate certificate program into a full-fledged professional master's program.

We'd welcome your input and comments.

Here are some details of the draft proposal:
  • 30 hours of total coursework, 9-12 months
  • 3 required courses (9 hours of coursework)
    • Science and Technology Policy
    • Science and Society
    • Quantitative Methods of Policy Analysis
  • 18 hours of electives chosen from 6 focal areas:
    • general policy research
    • space policy
    • bioethics
    • environmental policy
    • international STP
    • independent study (i.e., build your own with adviser)
  • 3 hours in a Maymester course
    • Held in DC in partnership with the CU in DC program.
    • or with international partners
Details on pricing etc. are TBD.

We welcome any thoughts or feedback, especially comments on whether you'd be interested in such a program, and why or why not.

Thanks!

16 December 2014

Gasoline Intensity of the US Economy at Recent Low (Take Two)

Thanks much to David Appell in the comments, who motivated me to take a second look at this analysis. I had been using a subset of total gasoline consumption in an earlier analysis, and he correctly points out that a more comprehensive measure is better. So this post has subsequently been revised.

Today the US EIA announced that projected household gasoline consumption in 2015 is expected to be the lowest in 11 years. That motivated me to update a graph I did a few years ago on the gasoline intensity of the US economy, defined as the total expenditures at the pump by US consumers as a proportion of overall GDP. (Note: I use annual values here and ignore higher frequency variations.)

That graph is shown above for the period 1976-2015, and shows gasoline as a percentage of overall GDP. The data comes from the US EIA (gasoline product supplied and prices) and the White House (GDP). Data for 2015 are obviously projections.

The data shows that as recently as 2011 (and really, much of the past decade) spending on gasoline, as a proportion of GDP, was similar to what it was in the mid-1980s. In 2015 that proportion is expected to be 40% of that in 1980 and more than a third less than what it was in 2010.

The bottom line here is that the gasoline intensity of the US economy is lower, by a long shot, than at any time in recent history. That is good news.

02 September 2014

Blog Break

UPDATE 12/1: Going forward all my climate-related posts will appear at a new blog, The Climate Fix.

I'm taking a blogging break this fall to focus on a few writing projects. But you can find me over at The Least Thing and SportingIntelligence.

25 August 2014

Science Advice Summit

UPDATED: The conference has released a briefing paper: Science Advice to Governments: Diverse systems, common challenges. The conference runs Thursday and Friday Auckland time, so if you'd like to follow along on Twitter etc. I'll post further updates here as warranted.

This week I'll be focusing on issues of science advice to governments, as I attend the "Science Advice to Governments" conference in Auckland, New Zealand. It is being characterized as a science advice "summit." I'll be participating on a panel focused on "Science advice in the context of opposing political / ideological positions" along with the chief scientific advisor to the Australian government, Ian Chubb, and the chief scientific advisor to Defra, Ian Boyd, among others.

The conference is being convened by ICSU and hosted by Sir Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor to the New Zealand government. Not long ago James Wilsdon previewed the conference:
The summit will take place in a year when we've seen important debates in scientific advisory systems worldwide. In the UK, Sir Mark Walport is about to mark his first year as Government Chief Scientific Adviser, during which he has had to tread a careful path through controversies over bees, badgers, fracking and flooding. In Brussels, Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, has been working tirelessly to persuade more EU member states to appoint national scientific advisers, with a view to establishing an EU-wide network. In Japan, three years on from the Great East Japan earthquake and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, arguments continue about how to reform structures for scientific advice and risk management. And at the United Nations, a new Scientific Advisory Board, hosted by UNESCO, held its inaugural meeting at the end of January 2014.

All of this suggests that the Auckland meeting couldn't be happening at a better time. Sir Mark Walport, Anne Glover, and their equivalents from India, Malaysia, Japan, Germany, Australia and the Philippines, will be among those attending. Scientific advisers, policymakers, academics – and anyone with an interest in these debates – is invited to register, or to follow developments online.
The conference will likely have a large online presence. I'll blog and tweet (@rogerpielkejr) as I can and the conference itself has a Twitter handle -- @globalsciadvice.

24 August 2014

Normalized US Earthquake Damage

UPDATE: Early damage estimate in neighborhood of $1 billion (NYT).

With news of a 6.0 magnitude earthquake today in San Francisco, I thought I'd provide a perspective on historical damage, The data in the table below are estimates of normalized damage for the top 15 14 events in our dataset -- from Vranes and Pielke 2009 (PDF), which I have quickly updated to 2014 values. A normalization seeks to estimate how much damage would occur if a past event occurred with today's level of wealth and development.

There are a lot of uncertainties in earthquake normalization methods, and those interested in digging deeper should have a look at our paper for the gory details. The top event is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which reminds us that while big earthquakes are rare, they can do lots of damage. For perspective, a repeat of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake could cause more than twice the damage caused by all US tornadoes since 1950.

Rank Date Normalized 2014 Damage Deaths Magnitude Location
1 18-Apr-06 $345,207,435,386 2000 8.3 San Francisco 
2 28-Mar-64 $38,910,888,527 131 8.4 Anchorage, Alaska 
3 18-Oct-89 $37,521,623,532 62 7.1 California, Loma Prieta
4 17-Jan-94 $37,046,374,369 60 6.6 Los Angeles
5 11-Mar-33 $19,340,807,766 100 6.3 California, Long Beach
6 13-Apr-49 $11,078,046,116 8 7.0 Olympia, Washington 
7 18-May-80 $9,495,474,795 31 5.2 Washington, Mt St. Helens
8 9-Feb-71 $9,197,179,695 65 6.5 California, San Fernando
9 28-Feb-01 $6,024,383,136 0 6.8 Washingotn, Olympia
10 11-Oct-18 $5,670,099,871 116 7.5 Puerto Rico
11 19-May-40 $5,036,397,660 9 6.5 Imperial Valley (California) 
12 21-Jul-52 $4,116,494,364 13 7.7 Central Calfornia
13 19-Oct-35 $3,989,310,216 2 6.2 Montana
14 29-Jun-25 $3,729,835,249 13 6.3 Santa Barbara (California) 

20 August 2014

New UK Flood Normalization

There are lots of interesting new studies emerging on trends in disasters and extreme events, and their possible relation to changes in climate, human-caused or otherwise. A new paper in the Hydrological Sciences Journal (Stevens et al. here in PDF) finds no evidence for an increase in UK flooding, once the data is normalized for exposure. 

The authors conclude:
Consequences are the combined results of high river flows, pluvial flooding and coastal  flooding, the numbers of people and property exposed to flooding and the effects of flood defence construction and floodplain management policies. The increase in the total number of reported flood events in the 20th century in the UK appears to be a function of the gradual increase in exposure due to urban expansion and population growth. However there is also greater capacity to report flood events. The number of reported ‘Class 3’ flooding events has remained static or decreased slightly over the 20th Century. This is despite the UK population almost doubling and the number of dwelling houses tripling over the same time period.

There is no clear underlying trend in flood reports present in the UK flood data when it is normalised for exposure. Pielke Jr. and Landsea (1998) studied damage caused by hurricanes in the USA. They also found that normalising damage reports to take account of exposure removed the upward trend of losses over time and only left a large decade to decade variation in losses. The lack of a systematic trend in the normalised UK total flood count mirrors these findings. It is also in agreement with studies of trends in river flows (Robson 2002).
As frequent readers here will appreciate, the best way to evaluate the fidelity of any normalization approach is to compare trends in the normalization with trends in the geophysical events. That checks out in this study.

Add Stevens et al. 2014 to the large and growing academic literature indicating that increasing disaster losses cannot at present be attributed to human-caused climate change.

16 August 2014

The Failure of the UK Climate Change Act

The Belgian think tank Bruegel points to data showing that the United Kingdom's GDP has returned to pre-economic crisis levels, as shown above. This allows us to do a quick and intuitive examination of how much the UK economy has decarbonized over that time period, and how that rate of decarbonization compares to that implied by the UK Climate Change Act.

As a refresher, decarbonization refers to the rate of decline in carbon dioxide emissions to GDP. In order for the UK to hit the targets prescribed in the UK Climate Change Act for 2022, it will need to achieve consistently an annual rate of decarbonization of  more than 3%, for any GDP growth rate greater than 1% per year. For more detail, and a full exploration of the quantitative implications of the UK Climate Change Act for decarbonization of the British economy, see my 2009 paper in ERL (open access).

With the UK GDP in 2014 at the same level as it was in 2008, it allows us to calculate a simple rate of decarbonization, as it will be exactly equal to the annual rate of emissions decline.

The 12 month (ending 2nd quarter 2008) carbon dioxide emissions for the UK for 2008 was 536.1 million metric tonnes (data here in XLS).  The trailing 12 month (ending first quarter 2014) carbon dioxide emissions for the UK for 2014 was 507.9 million metric tonnes (data here in XLS).

These data imply a rate of decarbonization of -0.9% per year. This is far less than would be needed to hit the targets of the UK Climate Change Act. Last year I calculated an update of the UK decarbonization rate through 2012, which arrived at a similar result. That calculation is shown below.
It is also possible to express the magnitude of the challenge of meeting the targets of the UK Climate Change Act in more intuitive terms. The graph below shows how much carbon-free energy (not electricity) would need to be deployed by 2020 assuming constant demand to 2022.
In my 2009 paper, which was written upon passage of the UK Climate Change Act in 2008, I concluded:
The approach to emissions reduction embodied by the Climate Change Act is exactly backwards. It begins with setting a target and then only later do policy makers ask how that target might be achieved, with no consideration for whether the target implies realistic or feasible rates of decarbonization. The uncomfortable reality is that no one knows how fast a major economy can decarbonize. Both the 2022 interim and 2050 targets require rates of decarbonization far in excess of what has been observed in large economies at anytime in the past. Simply making progress to the targets requires steps of a magnitude that seem practically impossible, e.g., such as the need for the UK to achieve a carbon efficiency of its economy equal to that of France in 2006 in a time period considerably less than a decade.

Further, the focus on emissions rather than on decarbonization means that it would be very easy for policy makers to confuse emissions reductions resulting from an economic downturn with some sort of policy success (cf, McGee 2009). However, as implicit in the Kaya identity, a lower GDP does very little to change the role of energy technology in the economy. So during a downturn emissions may level off or even decrease as policy makers of course seek to preserve (and even accelerate) economic growth. Consequently, a more directly useful metric for policy success for efforts to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is the decarbonization of the economy, represented in terms of carbon dioxide emissions per unit GDP.

A focus on decarbonization as the central goal of carbon policy rather than emissions reductions means that to achieve specific stabilization targets the rate of decarbonization of the UK economy must not only exceed the rate of economic growth, but it must exceed rates of decarbonization observed historically in the UK and in other developed countriesNote5. Because no one knows how fast a large economy can decarbonize, any policy (or policies) focused on decarbonization will have to proceed incrementally, with constant adjustment based on the proven ability to accelerate decarbonization (cf Anderson et al 2008). Setting targets and timetables for emissions reductions absent knowledge of the ability to decarbonize is thus just political fiction. . .

The failure of the UK Climate Change Act is yet to be broadly recognized, but when it is, it will provide an opportunity to recast carbon policies in a more effective manner.
Looking back from 2014, that analysis looks pretty good.