Dear W: Scientists Offer President Advice on Policy [1]

[ Thu. Dec. 26. 2002 ]


Congratulations! President George W. Bush is considering asking you to serve as his science adviser. He asks that you write him a memo addressing, "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"

So begins this year's online question from Edge, an e-salon of leading scientists and members of the "Third Culture" (in answer to C.P. Snow's scientists vs. humanists) presided over by Manhattan literary agent and author John Brockman. In past years, the Edge community has weighed in on the most important invention of the last 2000 years (Printing press? Clock? Stirrups? Knitting? The Pill?) and on what questions have disappeared (Was Einstein right? Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?).

This year -- with smallpox vaccination, bioterror, stem-cell research, climate change, energy policy and missile defense dominating news -- the annual question eschews intellectual posturing and gets down to practicalities.

Much of the advice is unlikely to please the West Wing. Marvin Minsky, the computer and artificial-intelligence pioneer, recommends scrapping "the whole 'Homeland Defense' thing" as "cost-ineffective." Calculating that the lifetime cost of preventing each airplane fatality will be $100 million or so (with comparable numbers for the tsunami of other public and private security measures undertaken since 9/11), he suggests "we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures."

I suspect Prof. Minsky has "memo-ed" himself out of consideration, as has William Calvin of the University of Washington, Seattle. Prof. Calvin sounds a call to arms on abrupt climate change. In contrast to the inexorable but slow alterations depicted by most models of greenhouse-driven climate change, which we might adapt to, in an abrupt change the planet "flips out of a warm-and-wet mode like today into the alternate mode, which is cool, dry, windy, dusty." That has occurred naturally dozens of times in Earth's past.

Before you greenhouse skeptics groan about scientists who can't decide whether we're imperiled by warming or cooling, recall that global warming can cause a change in the northern extension of the Gulf Stream that could plunge Europe into a little ice age.

Prof. Calvin recognizes that getting politicians to act in the face of scientific uncertainty and industry-backed opposition is "like herding kittens," but notes that "the physician who waits until dead certain of a diagnosis before acting is likely to wind up with a dead patient."

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, urges a global reconnaissance project: "We have identified as few as 5% of all the species living on earth. ... We are trying to run a planet with only a dim sense of what it is." Since we might run it into the ground, physicist Paul Davies of Australia's Maquarie University resurrects a proposal by the president's father: a manned mission to Mars with the goal of founding a "permanent self-sufficient colony."

For those of us left behind, psychologist David Lykken of the University of Minnesota advises Mr. Bush to harness the power of science to stop crime. The vast majority of crime in America, he suggests, is committed by "a growing and self-reproducing underclass consisting of the unsocialized offspring of single mothers." What we therefore need is research into "a program of parental licensure." To rear a baby, you'd have to be mature, self-supporting, healthy and law-abiding. "Babies born to unlicensed parents would be placed for permanent adoption."

Although there are pleas galore for government-funded research into puzzles ranging from the biology of consciousness to elementary particles (one is shocked -- shocked! -- that these suggestions come from researchers who might benefit from such funding), the most common theme is improving the truly deplorable state of education, especially science education.

To do that, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., urges the president to tap the science of mind. "Little in instructional practice has been evaluated" scientifically, he writes. "Instead, classroom practice is set by fads, romantic theories, slick packages and political crusades. We need more of these assessments, and faster implementations of what works."

Science education is especially abysmal, and if we don't whip it into shape fast, we're going to be in trouble. Artificial Intelligence pioneer Roger Schank of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says science ed is still "about preparing for Harvard in 1892" (Boyle's universal gas law, anyone?) "and not for life in 2003." He urges Mr. Bush to "change our education policy ... emphasize everyday reasoning issues like the use of stem cells or waste cleanup or snow removal or alternative energy sources." As long as science professors prepare "future scientists and not future Presidents, the nation suffers."

You can improve your own science education at [4], where the Edge memos will be available January 6.