We have to help them understand: Science matters!

Science buzz!!!
I highly recommend “Science, delayed” over on Science- Progress.org. It’s a short, clear case by Chris Mooney for how seriously messed up the U.S. Congress is when it comes to science, and how important it is for us all to speak up.

The short version is the the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), created in 1972 to provide non-partisan “user-friendly scientific advice to members of Congress”. After several successful decades (and providing a model for numerous other countries), it died a partisan death in 1995 at the hands of Gingrich The Newt and crowd. Mooney and others had hoped that the OTA would be reconstituted when the Dems regained control of Congress in 2006, but an attempt to include it in the legislative appropriations bill over the summer failed.

The problem? Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a physicist and supporter of the return of the OTA found that many of his colleagues just didn’t see the point.

Many members of Congress don’t even see the scientific component to many policy issues. “I use voting as an example,” Holt explains. “Not a single one of my colleagues really understood the problem that was presented by unverifiable voting machines. Scientists or engineers would get that immediately. But Congress didn’t.”

I’ll understand if you need leave the computer for a bit to go rock back and forth in a dark corner and moan. Go ahead – I’ll be here waiting for you when you’re done.

I certainly wouldn’t expect any politician to understand all the complexities of the technical and scientific component of every issue that comes before them. That would be an insanely superhuman task, which is why politicians (should) have (good) advisors. From a statement Holt made before the House Science Committee:

None of us in Congress have time to analyze scientific and technological advances and make reasoned, logical determinations of their direction and impact on industry, nations, and education, but we vote on decisions about topics on a regular basis that include technical or scientific components. The connections to science and technology are not always obvious, especially to Members who avoid science and technology, which are most Members. We cannot do this alone.

Unfortunately, it appears that most Congress Critters don’t have “official” science advisors (if they have them on their staffs, it’s bloody difficult to find that info on-line), which is exactly the gap the OTA was intended to fill.

Given that almost every issue of substance these days has a non-trivial science/technology component, this is particularly disconcerting. From Mooney’s piece (his emphasis):

But in truth, science pops up again and again across a wide diversity of political issues, including many unexpected ones, which is why the entire Congress needs the service of an agency specially suited to analyze issues with that in mind, as well as to look forward to future science-related quandaries on the horizon.

Where do your legislators stand on the restoration of OTA funds? We’ve got to ask these questions if we want them to take the issues seriously.

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One thought on “We have to help them understand: Science matters!”

  1. Rocking and moaning here. Of *all* people to be concerned about verifiability of voting machines, you’d think Congresscritters would be among the first. Which means, not only don’t they have a meager grasp of science, but they also lack a grasp of history and political paranoia. I am, in fact, totally stunned by that…

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