Policy as affected by science

Right now, as I write these words, the trajectory of future policy on nuclear energy is being altered by the science of an element called Zirconium. That’s because the spent fuel rods of the Number 2 nuclear reactor at Japan’s Fukushima power plant have lost their water shielding and there is now the possibility that their cladding, Zirconium, will catch fire with catastrophic results.

Science has a way of catching up with policy very suddenly, because being very firmly rooted in reality (we hope!), ground truth can render existing policy moot in an instant. In contrast, policy, rooted in the politics of the moment, often pushes very hard against science, but inevitably loses out when scientific reality pushes back–a Tsunami can moot a policy on sea-wall height.

As a scientist, I’m not in favor of a Technocracy (actually a political movement that existed here in the US in the early 20th century). I’m quite comfortable with the market-based western democracy form of government that has been the norm here in the States. On the other hand, I would like to see policies better informed by science.

How to get there?

The current Obama administration has tried the approach of appointing very high achieving scientists to top-level leadership positions both in the Cabinet (Secretary of Energy Chu is a Nobel laureate) and in the White House. I’m not sure that’s enough.

The problem is that until science rears up and enforces reality upon the polity (these black swan events are often disasters), it’s often quite politically convenient for factions to deny science–arguing that since scientific consensus is constantly evolving (we don’t believe that the Earth is at the center of the Solar System anymore), any group of scientists offering advice to policy makers are just one more special interest group. Just another version of the K-Street lobbyist.

I’ll stay away here from Climate Change, but instead return to nuclear power. The use of nuclear fission as a method to generate electric power is both attractive and fraught with complex dangers for nations–particularly those with limited access to fossil fuels. The science of nuclear fission on the contrary is quite simple.

Problems arise however as a result of the scientific truth: highly enriched nuclear fuel rods will continue to emit heat without cooling and that heat can, under the right circumstances damage and melt-away fuel rod cladding. Returning to Zirconium, its melting point is 1852 degrees Centigrade. Above that point, we have problems.

Hence, the science overtakes the policy when the temperature of the nuclear fuel exceeds the melting point of Zirconium. At that point, the scientist is not another special interest group. Actually the scientist becomes an oracle of sorts, advising the decision-maker on a moment of ground truth.

A caveat: scientists need to act more like scientists and less like K-Street lobbyists if they are to do a better job of informing policy.

2 thoughts on “Policy as affected by science

  1. Thanks Steve….always good to have your comments on the blog, and these are very good points.

    Vannevar's main argument for sustained post-War investment in science R&D was the good it would do society (both public health and the economy). Notably, not simply to increase our understanding of nature.

    Nevertheless, understanding nature remains a primary driver for those who practice science.


  2. Your point about a technocracy reminded me of a session CSPO hosted earlier this year (you can watch it here: http://vimeo.com/19185893) and below is description). But, while I agree that scientists need to be scientists to influence policy, I think that scientists need to understand (and appreciate) policy to influence policy. Many seem to view policy with disdain; akin to the tired basic-applied distinction. What I’ve always found frustrating is that many scientists seem to forget their obligations to society; that is, while “nobly” pursuing knowledge, it is often for the sake of knowledge and not for the sake of understanding so as to improve the public good (this may hearken back to Vannevar Bush and be part of what Don Stokes argued against when promoting use-inspired basic science).

    Eisenhower’s warnings to be remembered at seminar On January 18, CSPO and AAAS will co-sponsor a seminar in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address. Eisenhower's speech is mainly remembered for his warning of the perils of a “militaryindustrial complex.” Less widely known, but no less important, was his caution a few sentences later about “the danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” This seminar will explore the historical context and current relevance of Eisenhower's worries. CSPO faculty members and authors Dan Sarewitz and G. Pascal Zachary will speak, along with author and journalist Daniel S. Greenberg and journalist and former science analyst for the GAO William Lanouette. The seminar will be moderated by Steve Lagerfeld, editor of The Wilson Quarterly. The session will begin with coffee at 4pm, followed by the panel discussion at 4:30pm in the AAAS auditorium, AAAS Auditorium, 1200 New York Ave., NW, in Washington. You will be able to RSVP soon on the AAAS Web site. You can see the relevant portion of Eisenhower’s address on YouTube.


Comments are closed.