[asa] Balancing Science and Public Policy

From: Rich Blinne <rich.blinne@gmail.com>
Date: Tue Feb 06 2007 - 11:41:33 EST

So far, most of the debate on the intersection between science and public
policy -- particularly when dealing with climate change -- has degenerated
into a diatribe against the other "side". Both sides of the debate have
legitimate concerns, namely that we address the problems of climate change
in a timely manner *and* we don't create bigger problems by overly draconian
public policy. Where this intesects Christian ethics is that if we fail to
do both well the poor will pay the price. For example, drying out the
climate in Africa would make agriculture more difficult and hurt the poor
and so would a worldwide recession caused by overly draconian policies. Good
science is needed in order to properly counsel the politicians so that they
can solve the problem in a wise fashion. Good science also knows its
limitations by not trying to do things beyond its ken.

Which brings me to Susan Solomon. Dr. Solomon is one of the co-leaders of
the IPCC working group on climate science. The New York Times did an
excellent piece on her this morning showing how she kept the wheels from
coming off when there was political pressure to distort the science, mostly
from China and to a lesser extent the U.S. See here for the full article:

But, that's not what I want to discuss. Rather, there is a quote in the
middle where Dr. Solomon in my opinion struck an excellent balance between
the competing goals above. I am an engineer by trade and I know an excellent
trade-off when I see one and this is it. Enough of me. Here's Dr. Solomon:

> When a reporter asked Dr. Solomon "to sum up what kind of urgency this
> sort of report should convey to policy makers," she gave the furthest thing
> from a convenient sound bite.
> "I can only give you something that's going to disappoint you, sir, and
> that is that it's my personal scientific approach to say it's not my role to
> try to communicate what should be done," Dr. Solomon said. "I believe that
> is a societal choice. I believe science is one input to that choice, and I
> also believe that science can best serve society by refraining from going
> beyond its expertise.
> "In my view, that's what the I.P.C.C. also is all about, namely not trying
> to make policy-prescriptive statements, but policy-relevant statements."
> [RDB Note: the exact phrases "policy prescriptive" and "policy relevant" are
> in the IPCC guidelines for authors.]


> "As we all know, Susan is an outstanding scientist, and everybody has to
> make their own decision how to react to more political questions," Robert T.
> Watson, the chief scientist of the World Bank<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/w/world_bank/index.html?inline=nyt-org>and a former chairman of the panel, wrote in an e-mail message. "Ducking the
> question of what is needed did weaken the impact of the report to many
> observers. However, Susan could argue that her neutrality on the policy
> question provides her greater credibility as an unbiased scientist and
> chair."
> In the interview, Dr. Solomon was steadfast. She said: "I take the view
> that I'll talk about science, but that policy is a collective decision.
> There are a lot of different ways different people view this. This is
> reflective of the fact that scientists are human beings like everyone else."

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Received on Tue Feb 6 11:42:11 2007

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