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Scientists with Stones

If a man seeks to design a better mousetrap he is the soul of enterprise; if he seeks to design a better society he is a crackpot~~~ John Kenneth Galbraith “American Capitalism” (1952)

[Update below] 

No, by “stones”, I’m not talking about geologists, but rather using slang that refers to those parts of the male reproductive anatomy that serve as symbols of courage.

I frequently write about how scientific uncertainty effects policy and have recently written to criticize what I see as a certain reluctance by some scientists to enter the public policy arena, in deference to some false notion of scientific objectivity and credibility (e.g., see this on DEP regulatory policy and public health, see this on modeling and energy policy, see this on risk assessment and drinking water, see this on Barnegat Bay, and this on Global Warming, and this on the media “freak show”, and this on land use).

While I stand by all that, I may have inadvertently miscommunicated some aspects of the Barnegat Bay situation and was particularly harsh – perhaps unfairly so – in using the release of a recent study on land use change by Rutgers and Rowan to illustrate this dynamic.

I like to keep this blog current, and revise my thinking and previous posts as new information and evidence emerge.

So today I’d like to return briefly to the Rutgers/Rowan study post in light of an August 29 Bergen Record Op-Ed “Is NJ Running Out of Open Space?” written by that study’s authors, John Hasse of Rowan and Rick Lathrop from Rutgers. Both have done outstanding work in land use in NJ.

And while I’m at it, I’d also like to clarify the Barnegat Bay post to recognize a superb NJ scientist who exemplifies the best of being – for lack of a better term – what I will call a scientist with stones.

The conventional wisdom (sometimes referred to as “positivism“, and with which I disagree) erects an absolute and false barrier between facts and normative values.

This view discourages scientists from entering the policy arena. It also provides a comforting justification to salve the conscience of the individual scientist and allow him/her to rationalize a degree of isolation and disengagement that amounts to cowardice and professional irresponsibility.

It allows journalists to report stories as “he said/she said”.

It creates a dangerous vacuum in the public debate that is filled by powerful special interests and all sorts of charlatans, from global warming deniers to “intelligent design” religious zealots who reject Darwinian evolution. The standard veiw goes like this:

Science is a process of inquiry grounded in hypothesis testing and observation. Scientists aim to produce objective, value-free  information from data gathered from the natural world. Thus, scientists are comfortable collecting information that can be used to understand the potential consequences of actions; however, scientists generally begin to feel uncomfortable when asked to advise decision makers regarding what should be done given the scientific information presented. Scientists who abandon objectivity for advocacy run the risk of loosing credibility in the eyes of other scientists and the public (Boesch and Macke 2000). Therefore, scientists should not be asked what should be done, but rather to define the possible range of actions and evaluate the consequences of those actions.

Scientists often use this excuse to avoid political controversy. At times, it is justified in a well founded fear of retaliation – tenure and funding decisions have been used to basically defund certain researchers or institutions. Scientists are keenly aware of these kind of politics.

That political sensitivity was revealed by an unusual caveat that accompanied the Hasse Lathrop Op-Ed. It was posted prominently at the top, preceding the text, not as a typical end note:

John Hasse is an associate professor of geography and director of environmental studies at Rowan University. Richard G. Lathrop Jr. is director of the Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis and a professor in the department of ecology, evolution and natural resources at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the authors’ academic institutions.

The Hasse/Lathrop Op-Ed did a fine job of laying out the problem and posing key policy questions. They wrote:

Reframing and renovating our complicated land management system under this common goal brings into focus that we are all participants in designing New Jersey’s “Final Landscape”. We use the term “final” in the sense that land use will be locked in a pattern that will likely persist into the next century and beyond.

How will New Jersey’s built-out landscape look? How will it function? Will we be proud to hand it to our grandchildren? Will it be sustainable for their grandchildren? Will it grow our food? Will it affordably house our people? Will it move our people efficiently from home to work, to school, to play? Will businesses want to relocate and stay here?

It may be too late on the land use issues.

But if that kind of scientific leadership could be sustained and expanded upon into legislative and regulatory policy arenas, it would serve as a wakeup call and an example of the kind of work we need more of from our scientific community.

On July 28, I wrote these words, which I must revise in light of this Op-Ed:

The academics and planners at places like NJ Future generally were nowhere to be found …

We note that the academics were extremely reluctant to discuss their work (one reason why we chose to release it), or educate the public about the implications of their data, or engage the volatile policy debate. Of course, that abdication unwittingly undermined our efforts.

So, a significant part of the problem is that those same academics have sat on the sidelines for two decades as the sprawl boom consumed the NJ landscape.

Moving on to the Barnegat Bay debate, we see a perfect illustration of sustained scientific leadership by Mike Kennish of Rutgers.

Kennish is the leading expert on Barnegat Bay – see his July 14 powerpoint DEP presentation on ecological conditions of the Bay [Update: read the complete paper here which finds:

Eutrophication poses the most serious threat to the long term health of the Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor Estuary (Kennish et al., 2007a). Nutrient enrichment and associated organic carbon loading in this shallow, coastal lagoon have been linked to an array of cascading environmental problems such as increased micro- and macroalgal growth, harmful algal blooms (HABs), altered benthic invertebrate communities, impacted harvestable fisheries, and loss of essential habitat (e.g., seagrass and shellfish beds). The net insidious effect of progressive eutrophication is the potential for the permanent alteration of biotic communities and greater ecosystem level impacts.

In contrast to the conventional wisdom, Kennish is outspoken. He backs up his expertise by participating in public policy debates and is not afraid of the press, politicians, or DEP managers.

Kennish does not hide behind scientific uncertainty and he does not hesitate to target key regulatory tools that can protect the critical Bay natural resources he studies.

This quote from an August 6 Kirk Moore story from the Asbury Park Press series on the Bay sums that perspective up:

We have the data already. We’ve had it for years,” said Michael Kennish, a research professor who heads Rutgers University efforts to study Barnegat Bay’s pollution problems. “We know what the problems are. We need to have big stuff done, mandates and requirements imposed by DEP.”

Kennish cuts right through false scientific uncertainty used by bureaucrats and special interests to delay and block effective action. He targets the regulatory tools needed to solve the problem. And he identifies where the solutions to the problem lie.

Kennish’s approach is to conduct quality science and present it in a way that promotes democratic values, educates and empowers people, and holds policymakers accountable.

I couldn’t ask for more, from a scientist with stones.

[Update: 11/8/10: 2 months later, a “scientist with stones”, Dr. Kennish recognized: Rutgers professor honored for work with Barnegat Bay]

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