Imprecise language from

I was perusing my news feeds tonight when I came across the article entitled, “Candidates play to the right on science.” [1] I read it because I hoped to learn something new about the U.S. Republican Presidential candidates and their positions on scientific issues. What I read, instead, was a disappointing piece of writing unfitting for a major scientific journal.

For instance, when discussing the positions of Romney and Gingrich, the article states,

“Romney and Ging­rich now dominate an unsettled contest. Both are taking staunchly conservative positions on controversial science issues: they are against regulating carbon emissions and oppose embryonic stem-cell research.” [1]

The existence of human-induced climate change due to rapidly rising carbon dioxide levels is NOT a scientific controversy. The evidence of this process has convinced over 97% of all climate scientists that climate change is happening, that its driven by CO2, and that CO2 is placed in the atmosphere by human activity. The policy debate, however, is indeed fraught with controversy, from outright denialism to substantive arguments over the appropriate portfolio of remediations. The scientific community is not debating the existence or cause of the problem. Likewise, there is not debate in the scientific community about the potential for stem cells and the need to fund all possible research to maximize the chance of discovery. There is a vigorous policy debate over how to fund the research and about the moral or ethical implications of trading embryos for stem cells.

For the article’s author to miss the important point here – that the science is not in question but that the policy is very much in doubt – suggests that they are not really grasping the issues of the day. In fact, the language above is indicative more of mainstream, science-ignorant publications and not a major scientific publication.

Later in the article, the author says,

“After [Gingrich] was criticized on right-wing talk radio for involving Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, in a book project on environment entrepreneurship, Gingrich said he would drop Hayhoe’s chapter from the book. Hayhoe supports the idea that human activity is driving climate change.” [1]

The author again uses imprecise and inaccurate language; Hayhoe’s support for the theory of human-induced climate change is not the same as supporting an “idea.” The human origins of the current climate change events are overwhelmingly supported by facts: the seas are absorbing exponentially more energy, the land has warmed to a higher degree than anytime in thousands of years, CO2 levels have risen starting at the industrial revolution and led the warming, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and the CO2 now in our atmosphere is depleted in radioisotopic carbon (a signature of sequestered carbon, as from oil or coal). An “idea” is more akin to an untested hypothesis, an educated guess, or even an opinion (depending on popular interpretation).

The use of precise language is a critical component of scientific communication. We should not sacrifice wonder for precision, but we also must not sacrifice accuracy for expediency. I would hope that would recognize this. In a year when the bullshit is flying fast and furious in the U.S., the last thing we need are the citadels of scientific publication softening their own perspectives on critical science issues. This will only open the door to criticism of the presentation, and not the actual substance, of good science.


Communication Breakdown

I’ve spoken before about the yearly trips by members of the particle physics community to Washington, D.C. Their purpose is simple. We go to educate Members of Congress about our passion, our science, and its impact on the nation; we listen to what they have to say about science, and take messages back to the community and its leaders. This process has been ongoing for almost a decade, at least in the circles in which I am used to traveling. One message that has arisen time and time again is that we need to better explain, to government and to the public, the meaning and benefit of our work.

A recent hearing in Congress, in the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee [1], revealed just how poorly we have listened to their messages. The heads of three research agencies, as well as a theoretical physicist from Harvard, gave testimony (and heard messages of their own) earlier this month. The Senate committee overseeing research in basic research seemed to know little about the value of things like particle physics. We have a problem . . . still.

I won’t repeat the article I referenced above, except to quote the statement about Rep. Daniel Lipinski’s ” . . . observation that research in these fields is expensive and that more needs to be done to better communicate its results.” When somebody has to say that out loud, what they’re trying to tell you is that we don’t know why we’re spending money on what y’all do.

We have a great story to tell, no less than the quest for fundamental knowledge about matter, energy, space and time. This story and its human core are no less interesting (and entertaining) than the stories of doctors and police, which are routinely over-documented on TV. Clearly, this story is not getting out there (though the beginning lies in things like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Numb3rs” TV shows). Primarily, scientists themselves are not taking enough time to speak to the public – on TV, in newspapers, on the web, on the radio – about their work. Once-a-week shows like “Science Friday” or “Quirks and Quarks” are not enough. Once-a-year Congressional efforts are not enough. Echo chambers like “Fermilab Today” and “SLAC Today” are not enough. We need more.

Start at home. Write a short newsletter about your work and send it to your family. Instead of that annoying seasonal letter to friends and family about the state of your life, talk about the state of your work. Write a short letter to your Members of Congress. Tell them about your work, in short declarative sentences. Be non-technical. Be entertaining. Be honest.

Reach out to your institution. Find ways to get non-scientists at your institution into colloquia. Lessen the echo chamber by creating avenues for simple public communication. For instance, a department newsletter mailed once or twice a year to alumni can have a great effect. At labs, find ways to get the staff engaged in the work of the lab. I’m talking administrators and H.R. people, machinists and welders.

Solving this problem will take years, maybe decades. But it’s clear that even though we’ve started a few things in the past decade, they’re not having an effect. These same questions about the value of our work were around 10 years ago, and from many of the same people and institutions. We’re not sinking in. We have to saturate. The only way to soak the public in science knowledge is to dump truckloads of it on top of them, and hope any of it filters into their lives.


Messages for the Community

Support for Science - Under Construction: Lisa and I are your SLUO Washington trip co-chairsThis past week, three user organizations joined forces yet again in a well-organized and well-executed act of science diplomacy and headed to Washington D.C. to carry messages to Congress. Messages were also received, and will here be delivered in a short form for the community to heed. A more detailed report of this trip will be formulated over the next week and made available to the community through the user organizations.

The trip included 49 participants, with about 25% from SLAC, 31% from USLHC, and the rest from Fermilab. We met with over 200 Congressional offices, including a significant number of even short face-to-face meetings with members of Congress themselves. In addition, we sent small groups to the President’s Office of Management and Budget and to the science agencies, NSF and DOE Office of Science. A few of us were also invited to have drinks after normal Congressional business with Congressman Bill Foster, who is a physicist with significant business experience and now represents Fermilab’s district.

Messages from Congress

The biggest message from the Congress as a whole is that they still very much believe in funding science. From the Democrats who clearly control the Congress, to the most fiscally conservative Republicans, science is seen as an investment worth making, well thought-out and well-managed by the agencies overall. They still support the America COMPETES Act that passed in 2007 and laid out a blueprint for doubling the combined physical sciences budgets of NIST, NSF, and DOE in something like 7 years.

There were other messages, of course, from a smaller number of Congresspersons but no less important. There are many in the general body of Congress who still do not understand the significant role of the DOE Office of Science in funding basic research that benefits the nation and their districts. They hear “science” and they think of NIH or NSF, not DOE. DOE is seen as a technology agency, not a research agency or a steward of research tools. We have a LOT of work to do here, both in the community and in the agencies themselves.

Another significant messages regarded our field. There are key members of Congress with significant understanding of particle physics who caution us that we must commit to sending our best and brightest to the agencies to do 5-10 years of service. This is needed so that well-informed and highly regarded members of the community are making policy, not just sitting back and complaining about it. Our field, mainly due to the way universities view such work and due to the way we as colleagues view that work, holds the best close to the vest and sends “failed” candidates, those who didn’t get faculty jobs or those who didn’t have exceptional careers in the field, to Washington. One member of Congress noted that this is a sure recipe for the destruction of our field, and change needs to happen.

A final message was this: this year may be an easy one, and next year may be much, much harder. That is because this is the year that Congress took out a huge mortgage on the future. Next year, if things don’t start to improve, they will wake up and realize they cannot afford the mortgage. They will panic, perhaps, and make cuts across the board. Science may not survive that, and we may yet again go from the boom to the bust, the kind of bust that causes 20% layoffs again. It is imperative that we keep the dialogue going about the centrality of science to the economic solution, hope for better times but plan for worsening ones.

Messages from Office of Management and Budget

The conversation at OMB this year was a more casual one than in years past. The strong message that came through this year is the President’s commitment to science, even in worsening times. That said, the plan is to keep the FY10 budget flat. This is because the science agencies are overwhelmed with Recovery Act and FY09 money, and flushing that through the system needs to happen responsibly at a time when they are crunched for staff. FY10 will be flat, but have the arc of Recovery Act money on top of it, effectively bringing it to the level of the America COMPETES Act. FY11 will see a growing budget again.

The other large message was about DOE’s Office of Science. While there is a recognition that some awakening is happening, there is still frustration that DOE is not managing its brand. Congress still doesn’t get what they do overall, and even the agency itself seems not to understand the breadth of its own program. Change needs to happen here if we ever hope to have the effective science policy the community deserves.

Messages from NSF and DOE

We are still digesting these, and while I was not personally present on the NSF visit I can say that they clearly made their priority of moving DUSEL forward a top one, and a big topic of the conversation. Underground science is a critical focus of the particle physics and astronomy program at NSF. There was some frustration expressed about how fast LSST is moving itself forward on private money, even a sense that they are dangerously ahead of the agency. I got this information second-hand, but it was clearly weighing on the mind of the person reporting it to me.

From DOE, we got a sense both of optimism and caution. The optimism is that things will improve in the country, and the path ahead as planned by the America COMPETES Act will hold. The amount of money being handled by the agency is being treated with caution of the same scale as the increase. There is a concern that if a bust follows the boom this year, universities might suffer, but the agency seems confident it can prepare for that scenario. The President has tasked the nation to spend more on science, and the head of the DOE has tasked the basic research parts of the agency to prepare for growth. We learned that the NASA community has expressed some concern that it’s not part of this focus, but the statement from the top has been clear: the physical science agencies will move ahead.


Be positive, but proceed with foresight and planning. Know that science is at the top of the nation’s priorities, but we lack a firm champion in the Senate. The science agencies stand ready to deliver, albeit in the face of extreme scrutiny and without the personnel to do it as quickly as is preferred. Prepare for next year, and keep in touch with Congress so they don’t forget we are people too.