Training Academic Foxes to Guard the Policy Henhouse

February 26, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes​.com on February 26, 2012.

Most people think of scientists as disinterested nerds, doggedly pursuing truth while ignoring the world around them. Many of their spouses likely concur.

Being involved in the grimy political process seems especially divorced from the milieu of science, but not in the highly charged atmosphere of climate science. In fact, my lobby, the American Meteorological Society (AMS), actively recruits scientists to influence policymakers.

While this may appear unseemly, it’s a logical extension of human behavior. If many of us want access to the political process in order to get what we want, why can’t scientists?

The AMS is now advertising for this year’s “Summer Policy Colloquium”, with an announcement that’s breathtakingly candid. Among other things, participants will “build skills, experience, and contacts they can use throughout their careers to understand and influence the atmospheric policy process”. And who is this pitched to? Here’s a direct cut from this year’s invitation:

Who can attend?

• mid‐​level federal managers and scientists

• mid‐​level private‐​sector executives

• university faculty

• selected graduate students of demonstrated scientific and leadership potential

• (under exceptional circumstances) undergraduate applications will be considered.

Apparently, AMS sees nothing unseemly about federal employees lobbying for their own interests, nor does it have a problem with university scientists, almost all of whom are on the federal dole for a million or so per year, doing the same.

This is a logical extension of what Nobel‐​Prize winner (and Cato Institute scholar) James Buchanan calls “Public Choice”, a theory elucidated in his landmark 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent.

Simply put, public choice theory explains how special interests are incentivized to influence the policy process, with much to gain for a few (like atmospheric scientists) at relatively little cost to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the AMS. On February 23, the American Geophysical Union, which covers atmospheric, oceanic and geologic science, transmitted the 14,000-member AMS announcement to its 50,000. And where is the AMS colloquium to be held? At the headquarters of the American Association for The Advancement of Sciences, in downtown Washington. AAAS is the world’s largest scientific society.

The American Geophysical Union is quite candid about the purpose of the colloquium, announcing that participants will “ build a network of contacts and resources that will help them going forward in science policy.”

Does anyone really expect graduates of the AMS program will go to Capitol Hill and argue against spending even more money on the biggest cash cow in the history of the atmospheric sciences, global climate change?

Our “independent” universities are in fact wards of the federal government, and their aspiring faculty are the chattel. Any professor who goes to Washington imperils his future if he lobbies that climate change isn’t the end of the world.

Like it or not, this is the way of our society. In return for the largess of big government, higher education supports big government.

Americans, who are increasingly restive about the cost‐​benefit ratio of college, are quite aware of what is going on, particularly with respect to the issue of climate change. In 2010, Gallup asked people what they thought about news accounts of global warming, with the following question:

Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct, or is it generally underestimated?

The triplicate nature of the question means that the random expectation would be that one‐​third of us should feel that coverage is exaggerated, correct, or underestimated. In fact, a whopping 48% of respondents say the issue is exaggerated.

Most news stories about global warming are “pegged” to some new scientific publication or federal regulation. Exaggeration is the overhead that we pay for the unseemly marriage between government‐​sponsored science and federal policy that is being encouraged and fostered by our most prestigious scientific societies.

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