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Science Friday: driving without headlights

September 21, 2007

The Arecibo radiotelescope observatory is a top scientific instrument, unique in all the world.  In addition to looking deeply into the universe, it is also the highest-resolution device we have for mapping Earth-colliding objects.  It can probe the Moon for water, and much, much more.  It’s a tremendous bargain at $8m/yr to run.

And it’s in danger of closing for want of the US contribution of four million bucks a year, or about 20 minutes’ cost for the Iraq war

Why do instruments like the Hubble and Arecibo, which are great bargains, have to go begging for funds, while flashy wasteful projects like the International Space Station go on hemorrhaging our tax dollars and returning nothing?  (Just for comparison, you could run Arecibo for 1,600 years for what it will cost to finish the scientifically useless International Space Station.)  One reason could be that in a jaw-dropping 1994 act of bean-counting foolishness,  the Republican-controlled congress closed the Office of Technology Assessment, the non-partisan scientific auditing arm of our legislative branch.  This is like not replacing the headlights on your car to save lunch money. 

There’s a proposal and a petition to bring back the OTA.  There’s certainly never been a better time to spend a little bit of dough to make sure we’re getting the biggest bang for our science buck.  Check out the link, write your congressman, sign the petition, and help unlobotomize Congress.


  1. Ted
    September 22, 2007 at 10:28 | #1

    The OTA.

    It’s regressive—relying on a methodology from pre-web, pre-wikipedia, pre-google days.

    I think that this is Mark’s way to trying to bypass the unwashed masses to influence public policy. Well, it’s not just Mark’s way, but you cited him.

    Nothing wrong with making good decisions re science, but it shouldn’t bypass deliberative inclusion of the taxpayer just because one finds their understanding contemptuous. Let’s consider that ma and pa pay taxes, have a socially productive job, and should have reasonable access to make public policy decisions as well.

    Is there no alternative to the OTA?

  2. September 22, 2007 at 11:05 | #2

    Having a technology analysis arm doesn’t shut Ma and Pa out of the policy process.  They can still write their congresscritter,  but said critter should also receive a nonpartisan, science-based report to balance the intuition of people who get most of their information from the nightly news.

    (Yes, it’s OK to accuse me of contempt for that information channel – guilty as charged!  The nightly news devotes 2 minutes to a science-fluff piece but runs a weeks-long series about something some sports announcer said or the crisis in teenaged boys getting laid by their teachers.  And then ‘balances’ it all out with another fluff-piece about alternative medicine.)

    If we create a new OTA (which it would have to be – the old one is long gone), it will probably use some methods that weren’t developed in 1994.  And as much as I like the web, Wikipedia, and Google, they pose a filtering challenge to say the least.  Do you want public policy driven by whatever bubbles up to the top of Google’s search algorithm? Or by the latest Wikipedia vandalism? 

    The federal science budget needs reconstructive surgery, but somebody needs to make sure it isn’t driven by 2-minute news reports.  We could call it something different but the need is still there.

  3. September 22, 2007 at 14:29 | #3

    I think if politicians showed an interest in science and science education it would make a difference in our society’s interest. A positive one. One good way to show interest is to show that public policy is based on sound science. The whole “I’m goin from gut instinct here” is bullsh**.

  4. Ted
    September 22, 2007 at 15:08 | #4

    I’m probably in my downcycle moodwise, but I’m with Yglesias mostly. I am fairly often surprised at the level of arrogance on scienceblogs (or maybe it’s just how I perceive it). But the notion that we should do public policy based on blogpost outrages is frankly, a little disturbing. Not yours, but the ones over there.

    Say what you will about us eggheads, at least we think everyone potentially can understand what we’re talking about.

    Yeah, well, that’s just nonsense that sounds egalitarian or populist. If we all spent the sum of our time in academics and doing research maybe it could be possible, but that’s not my experience even among academics. For people that lead an ordinary life, have children, go to sports events, go fishing, watch TV, read a book for enjoyment, etc—it’s a pollyannish stretch to think that either they can understand it to the same level as Mike the Mad Biologist, or that if they don’t, they’d be happy to hand over the responsibility for public policy to their betters (better educated/insulated at least).

    I’m not suggesting that web, google or wikipedia are substitutes, but they are tools that change our society and the lexicon of our communication.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that people are driven to the ovens and the gulags for the sin of arrogance and haughtiness. And I certainly don’t know how science can be made apolitical since it costs money.

  5. September 22, 2007 at 15:42 | #5

    the notion that we should do public policy based on blogpost outrages is frankly, a little disturbing.

    I do think blogs are a good channel in the public dialog, even if some of them could use a short course in charm school.  And it bothers me a lot that politicians are so dismissive of science.  I think back to Ike and his science advisory council, and compare him to Mike Huckabee…

  6. September 24, 2007 at 03:34 | #6

    This country seems in so many ways to be turning away from any reasonable effort to understand science and towards some dangerous notion that whatever feels good is true. And if you believe whatever feels good is true, then why do you need an OTA?

  7. September 24, 2007 at 05:48 | #7

    Or to put it another way; if you believe whatever feels good (or is approved by your religion, or is high in the polls) is true, you really need an OTA…

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