Scientists and Engineers for America

Prompted by a Wall Street Journal editorial “Under the Microscope”, I looked into the Scientists and Engineers for America. I was intrigued by the editorial's assertion:

The more disturbing disingenuousness here involves the suggestion in some SEA statements that there is such a thing as absolute, accurate science—a body of facts—that is beyond further investigation. And that certain subjects or findings are not open to interpretation or discussion by nonscientists, including policy makers. In other words, when Americans raise questions about the moral implications of, say, stem-cell research, they are trumping science with “ideology.” Presumably, those who disagree have no ideology or political agenda, only factual knowledge on a case that is closed.

So I went and looked, expecting some horrible political grandstanding about stem cell research or global warming. Most of the statements on the site are innocuous.

I did find a blog post on global warming as well as a fairly partisan statement here:

Concerned about the ideological and partisan manipulation of science, compromising of scientific integrity and harassment of scientists by the Bush Administration and Congress, leaders in the scientific and engineering communities announced the launch of a new organization on Wednesday, September 27th. The group, called Scientists and Engineers for America, is a 527 political organization that will focus on the need to address the current state of science policy by electing new political leadership.
Over the last several years, scientists have come under political assault and the integrity of science has been compromised. The attacks have ranged from White House rewriting an Environmental Protection Agency report on global warming, to veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, to the promotion of intelligent design to disseminating inaccurate scientific information on federal websites.

Okay, that's pretty anti-GOP, but there's nothing wrong with that. GOP pandering to evangelical influencers is a long tradition and directly conflicts with the long scientific tradition. I'm one of those Internet Libertarians that popped up when freethinkers were able to (literally) network. Despite this strong kickoff post on the blog, most of the things on the organization's site are appealing to me. I'm a science buff, and a critical thinking buff.

Also on the blog is a call to stop the

…politicalization of science at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA).

This one is troubling. The NOAA supposedly stripped comments linking global warming and hurricane strength because of legitimate concerns over the science. However, NOAA also forbade scientists from discussing the issue with the press. The first item is, of course, debatable and debate is healthy. The second item is unacceptable and there is evidence of suppressing the scientists in the form of emails and other materials.

Enough of the blog, let's look at their agenda. On the surface it's all clean, but each item has a link. Under the surface of the energy item we find a line item supporting the Kyoto “emission reduction unit” pay-for-pollution scheme:

Create tradable permits in greenhouse gases or equivalent incentives to encourage innovation and drive investment in cost-effective technologies;

I'm not a Kyoto fan. There are thousands of scientists who also don't like it. I don't like Kyoto being touted as a plank in the SEFORA agenda. However, I do support basic research funding (as opposed to public funding of technology productization efforts) and there is a call for that here.

Under health:

Remove inappropriate limits on stem cell research and reproductive health policy;

What “inappropriate” means here is the loaded question. The use of the word inappropriate leaves the comfortable environs of science and delves directly into the sphere of morality. If the purpose of SEFORA is to develop tools to separate fact from opinion in order to have a good debate on the morals of a course of action I'm all for it. If they have pre-supposed moral conclusions I will challenge them.

The word “inappropriate” is used again in the education section:

Ensure that inappropriate security concerns do not block American access to the best students and researchers from around the world.

I wonder what an inappropriate security concern is in the context of a scientific debate. Risk analysis is a science. Political analysis is a guessing game. Collaborating with and training new scientists is a straightforward process, but if those scientists are researching particular technologies in countries with particular political climates it does become a security concern. What scientific tools will SEFORA bring to this arena?

The rest of the education section is so good, however, that I can't help but support it. Especially the core statement:

America’s prosperity and security in the twenty-first century depend on our ability to develop scientific and technical talent. Quality of education and equality of educational opportunity are essential to compete in a tightly interconnected global economy. A firm grasp of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is essential for all Americans and so we must ensure that talent is identified, encouraged, and supported without prejudice.

I did not pick up a undercurrent of foregone conclusions or stifled debate in what I read of the web site. There are some issues that cause me concern, but I'm willing to see how they develop.

I joined SEFORA this morning. It was a leap of faith.

Update: I forgot to mention the SEFORA “Bill of Rights” for Scientists and Engineers:

Effective government depends on accurate, honest and timely advice from scientists and engineers. Science demands an open, transparent process of review and access to the best scholars from around the nation and the world. Mistakes dangerous to the nation’s welfare and security have been made when governments prevent scientists from presenting the best evidence and analysis. Americans should demand that all candidates support the following Bill of Rights:
  1. Federal policy shall be made using the best available science and analysis both from within the government and from the rest of society.
  2. The federal government shall never intentionally publish false or misleading scientific information nor post such material on federal websites.
  3. Scientists conducting research or analysis with federal funding shall be free to discuss and publish the results of unclassified research after a reasonable period of review without fear of intimidation or adverse personnel action.
  4. Federal employees reporting what they believe to be manipulation of federal research and analysis for political or ideological reasons should be free to bring this information to the attention of the public and shall be protected from intimidation, retribution or adverse personnel action by effective enforcement of Whistle Blower laws.
  5. No scientists should fear reprisals or intimidation because of the results of their research.
  6. Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications, not political affiliation or ideology.
  7. The federal government shall not support any science education program that includes instruction in concepts that are derived from ideology and not science.
  8. While scientists may elect to withhold methods or studies that might be misused there shall be no federal prohibition on publication of basic research results. Decisions made about blocking the release of information about specific applied research and technologies for reasons of national security shall be the result of a transparent process. Classification decisions shall be made by trained professionals using a clear set of published criteria and there shall be a clear process for challenging decisions and a process for remedying mistakes and abuses of the classification system.

The way whistle blower statutes are supposed to work is that when someone cannot correct a criminal situation through their normal avenues they may be protected from retaliation if they go public with the information. While the NOAA event about was dishonest, it wasn't criminal. I'm not sure what they expect to accomplish with item 4. As for #7, I suggest The Joy of Science by The Teaching Company as core curriculum.

Josh Poulson

Posted Tuesday, Oct 10 2006 10:33 AM

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