Thursday, November 20, 2008

MIT's advice to the Obama Administration on Science Policy

I went to a talk last week put on by MIT Center for International Studies about the future of science policy under the Obama administration. Marc Kastner, Dean of the School of Science, gave the talk and he was supported by Eugene Skolnikoff from the Political Science department. The talk was so-so, but it was followed by one of the best question and answer sessions I've ever seen at a talk like this.

Before I get into the Q&A and my thoughts on that, here's a quick overview of the talk. Kastner made 4 suggestions to the Obama administration, in order from easiest to most difficult:
  • Restore the prestige of science in government
  • Basic research in energy
  • Research at the convergence of life sciences and physical sciences or engineering
  • Stabilize funding

He gave some good background on each of these points (I hadn't realized how flat government funds for basic research outside of the NIH have been, see the chart above). But I felt the talk was lacking because it wasn't really advice - it was a wish list. It's important to articulate where you want to get to, but it's even better to think about how to get there.

And how will we get there? Just like any other issue in government, there's the old way of doing things, "Washington business as usual," and then there's the hope of finding a new way which will be more effective, transparent and open to the public. In this case, the two speakers and many of those asking questions recommended calling or writing your representative. This is great, but certainly nothing new, and not massively effective

The speakers also mentioned the importance of groups that lobby on behalf of the sciences. This is a tricky area - of course I want to see the sciences get their due representation and funding, and of course I believe that educating congressional representatives will help them see the importance of funding science research. But the problem is that everyone who lobbies tells themselves exactly this same story; the tobacco lobby has their own story that they truly believe about the importance of educating congress (watch Thank You for Smoking for a great take on this).

One of attendees used his question to make a great point about the importance of organizing at a local level (community organizing didn't become a dirty word after all!). He encouraged students to get a group together and ask their mayor or state representative to come meet with them in person. Clearly, this is a step in the right direction compared to letter writing or old-style lobbying, and it can even be enhanced by social-networking technology to scale up to larger groups than would have been possible 20 years ago.

But all of these approaches are still missing the point of what a new politics will really involve: persuading not just the people in charge, but your peers who disagree with you. Let's face the facts: the government can increase funding for science, or put new focus on basic research, but to for science to regain its former prestige in America will take a cultural change that government cannot achieve, at least not through policy and budget changes.

There's a potentially exciting movement going on right now called Join the Impact which is looking to take this bottom-up approach to changing American attitudes toward homosexuality. As Proposition 8 in California reminded all of us, you can't expect government or the courts to enact a major change if the public doesn't want to see it happen. You will have small victories along the way (and these victories may help persuade the public and become self-reinforcing), but until the public supports a change it won't be sustainable and secure.

Join the Impact has a different goal than most politically-minded action groups: to change the views of those who disagree. This is not just raising awareness, and it's not about demonstrations of support. This is recognizing that the most effective path to political change may begin from the bottom up, and organizing a political action group around that goal.

Is this really so different from what we've seen in the past? After all, we've had Darfur rallies and gay rights awareness groups for years. To be honest, I'm not sure how much of it is a different in the movement, and how much of it is focusing on the right issue at the right time. I'm also not sure if they will have any more success than past efforts.

Nonetheless, the many instances of advances and setbacks at the state level on various issues have convinced me that the advances only last if we can build the change from the bottom up. This means getting more people more involved, and that's where government can help. None of these problems will be solved by government, but if Obama can provide a kick-start (or a kick in the pants) to the public, then we may be able to achieve some pretty spectacular results.

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