Francesca Grifo from the Union of Concerned Scientists talks about the need for legislation to protect federal scientists. We'll also hear from the UCS's Kurt Gottfried and Anthony Robbins, who spoke at a press conference in Boston in February. And Scientific American's editor-in-chief, John Rennie, previews the April issue of the magazine. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.ucsusa.org
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting April 2nd, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast: Do we need a bill of rights for scientists? Some researchers think we do and that was the subject of a press conference by the Union of Concerned Scientists that I attended in Boston in February. I interviewed Francesca Grifo, senior scientist at the UCS and the director of the UCS' Scientific Integrity Program. We'll hear from her and we'll hear some clips from the actual press conference, and Scientific American editor John Rennie will preview the April issue. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First, here's a couple of minutes from Kurt Gottfried's statement at the press conference. He is professor of physics emeritus at Cornell, co-founder of the UCS and the chair of the UCS' board of directors.
Gottfried: Two of our first three presidents, Adams and Jefferson, had a keen interest in science. Franklin, who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was a royal-class scientist. Therefore, the pursuit of science in open societies has had a long and fruitful tradition in America. For generations our citizens have supported the creation of many government agencies that use science to enhance public health and safety and to protect our environment. Unfortunately this tradition has been discarded in recent years by the government itself. An atmosphere that violates the codes of openness and transparency that are indispensable to both democracy and science has been created in many science-based federal agencies. Government scientists have their findings subjected to censorship and misrepresentation. The public and congress often have been deprived of accurate and candid scientific information. Any scientific institution is only as good as its scientists. The government can only expect their top-flight scientific talent in public service, if it provides an environment, conducive to good science because scientists have many other options. In short, the illegitimate constrains that have been imposed on many federal science agencies have damaged their ability to render the public service which is their very reason for existence and poses a threat to their long-term strength. Four years ago, my colleagues and I spoke out against this administration's manipulation of science. Since then, some 15,000 scientists from all 50 states have endorsed our statement. Today, we retired that statement, because it spoke to conditions four years ago and now we look to the future. Our purpose today is to engage the American scientific community in a campaign to repair the damage that has been done. Beyond that we seek to establish the conditions that science-based federal agencies need to continue to attract scientific talent devoted to public service. We therefore call on the next president [and] congress to quantify the basic freedoms that federal scientists must have if they are to produce the scientific knowledge that is needed by a government dedicated to the public good.
Steve: Immediately after the press conference, I chatted with Francesca Grifo. Dr. Grifo thanks for talking to me.
Grifo: Thank you very much. It's delightful to be here.
Steve: Tell me about the effort that's underway, what the reason for that effort is and what we hope to accomplish.
Grifo: The effort that's underway is to really try and change the way that science is being used in this government for the next administration. We're looking ahead to the next four years. We are putting to bed our concerns and our problems that we've documented with the current administration and really looking forward. Part of that effort is releasing this statement, which is a scientific freedom statement for scientists. One of the things that we found is that the conditions right now in federal agencies are not conducive for federal scientists to be able to do their jobs. These are people that are paid with our tax dollars and in fact the science they do should remain independent, should remain free of influence and be there for the American people.
Steve: Talk about some of the pressures that the scientists in the government are under and how that's affecting what the general public is getting out of their tax dollars for science.
Grifo: Well, I think one of the examples that is very near and dear to me, as a mother with children, has to do with lead in lunch boxes. I mean, why would you think that vinyl that's used in lunch boxes might have lead in it? But, in fact, it does. It's a way of cheaply making this vinyl and as our products continue to come from all over the world, we have to be deeply concerned about the way that they are constructed. Scientists at the consumer product safety commission, which is the group and the government that is tasked with overseeing these kinds of imports, did some tests on these lunch boxes. They looked at them; they swiped them with a lead test very similar to what you can buy on the Web and, in fact, found high levels of lead. So, instead of immediately alerting the public and immediately expressing this concern, they went back and thought, well you know, if we take many, many swipes, if we just keep swiping, the numbers go down, because, in fact, with each swipe you remove the lead that's on the surface.
Steve: They are taking the swipes from the same surface.
Grifo: Same surface, same place over and over again. Now, I don't about you, but that's not the way my child uses a lunch box.
Steve: It's also not the way we do science.
Grifo: Exactly. And then they averaged those and when they took the average of all those swipes that were progressive lower levels of lead, of course they got to an average level that was within the standards that were allowable. I mean, this is the kind of science that's going on because we have industry influence, private sector influence, special interest influence that is going at the science. Now, that doesn't mean to say that those groups don't have a right to be a part of a democracy and the policy process. What they may not do and cannot do at the peril of our health and safety is to change the science before it's complete, to interfere in this case in the methodology of the experiments, to predict an answer to know what answer you want before you even begin the experiment and that's what we're seeing.
Steve: We used to call that pencil titration in chemistry class.
Steve: You figure out what your titration number should be and then you just write that down in your work notes instead of actually doing the experiment. So, what's going on? You have a new statement. You had a statement four years ago and now you have a new statement; you got 15,000 signatories to the statement, that's all great, but you also want congressional legislation.
Grifo: We do, and in fact, we've had very good congressional oversight. We are very pleased, particularly since congress changed hands with the degree of oversight that's occurred, but there is so much to do. We need to really look at transparency in government. I mean, right now, it is very difficult for many government scientists to actually attend scientific meetings to keep up with their scientific research to, you know, provide posters and co-author things with scientists in the private sector.
Steve: Why is it difficult, because they are not given the funding to go to the meetings?
Grifo: Well, that's one part of it, but that's a separate issue, I mean an additional issue. It's difficult because of the labyrinth of permissions that need to be obtained. I mean, we all remember Jim Hansen at the American Geophysical Union meetings discussing not just his research results, which is what every federal scientist should be able to do if they are a federal scientist, unless its national security or some other specific minor issue they should be able to share those results. But he took the step of going beyond that to try and help his audience to understand what those results meant and he was immediately clamped down upon by the public affairs officers at his particular agency. Now, this is what we're seeing in many, many agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA, NASA and many, many...
Steve: Right. We've seen public affairs officers edit reports that by mandate need to be issued, so that they are less inflammatory in some direction or they describe the Big Bang as merely being somebody's whim of an idea.
Grifo: Exactly! And what we need in contrast
to that is we need for scientists to be able to speak out about research results as federal scientists and if they want to take that next step, they can still identify themselves as agency scientists. They just must say I'm now speaking as a private citizen. This is my opinion, because I take the point that we don't want every scientist and every agency making policy. We need to have a uniform policy voice that comes out of an agency. But what we cannot have is suppression or censorship of those research results and that's a very different thing.
Steve: President Bush has famously issued over 700 signing statements and I've looked at some of them and one of them in particular had to do with the release of scientific results. You want to talk about that a little bit.
Grifo: Yeah. I mean, I think the key thing with the signing statements has to do with the bigger issue, which is the theory of the unitary executive. That we're talking about the idea that the executive branch, only one of our three branches of government is extending its power, extending its influence over the other two branches of government through the signing statements. A signing statement means that congress passes a law and the president appends to that law, his interpretation of which parts are constitutional and which are not.
Steve: Which is the Supreme Court's job.
Grifo: Well, but even that is okay. You know, that is fine. But what we are seeing now are signing statements that are even more intrusive that go even further and more deeply into saying, you know, this part of the law is going to be meaningful, this part is not going to be enforced and so on.
Steve: We would ignore this part because of some concern we have.
Grifo: Exactly! And that is an utter and you know just ridiculous intrusion into the power of the legislative branch.
Steve: And the specific signing statement I saw that had to do with scientific results. Some of these results are congressionally mandated to be released to the public and yet the signing statement was saying only if we decide that it would not perhaps endanger national security or some other thing that you know may be true or may be a smoke screen, either way it seems extra-legal.
Grifo: Well, what we've seen with this administration is an incredible increase in classification, an overclassification of documents and no real remedy for declassifying them in a timely fashion. So, that, you know, gets us into a much bigger issue of this whole, you know, shroud of secrecy that we're seeing.
Steve: Let's talk about the interference from the executive branch, historically versus just that in this current administration, because at Scientific American we get letters from readers all the time and the letters say every President does this. Now, Kurt Gottfried in the press conference just now said that there have indeed been incidents in past administrations but he categorized them as isolated incidents whereas in the last seven years it has been a systemic issue.
Grifo: Absolutely. I think what we are seeing is a pattern across agencies, across sections of this government. One of the things we do to kind of take it from the anecdote to the pattern are these surveys of federal scientists and we've surveyed many thousands of scientists and as I said this morning, 1,191 of them came back to us and said, yes, I fear retaliation for sharing the mission-driven work of my agency for talking about that work and that just can't be.
Steve: Is the fear of retaliation something that... I mean, you are a scientist, let's talk about it from a scientific point of view. They are afraid of retaliation. Does that mean that there really is a pressure on them to keep quiet?
Grifo: One of the things we do with the surveys is ask the scientist to write an answer to the question: "Scientific integrity at your agency could be best improved by...?" And all of those essays are on our Web site. There are literally hundreds of pages of them and I, you know, the doubting Thomas is out there. I would say, go and read the words of these scientists, go and see the specific nature of the concerns. They are not people who are angry and bitter naysayers. They are people who are worried about their agencies who are worried about the public safety and the health of Americans. It comes through so vividly in their words.
Steve: Well what's the Web site?
Grifo: http://www.ucsusa.org and you would go to the Scientific Integrity Program.
Steve: You've mentioned some of these things but, you know what we're calling this legislation is “the scientists' bill of rights.” What specific rights are you hoping to get legislated for federal scientists?
Grifo: We worked with many scientists, scientists currently in the federal government as well as many former feds who have been in charge of agencies for many years under many different administrations and what they've said to us is there are certain conditions that need to be there so that a scientist can do their best work. So, it's really about scientific freedom and the public good. Some of these freedoms that we're talking about are, you know, not having that fear of reprisal or retaliation, but to have the freedom to conduct their work without political or private sector interference to candidly communicate their findings to congress, the public and their scientific peers, to publish their work and to participate fully in the scientific community and to disclose misrepresentation, censorship, and other abuses of science. And last but not least, to really have their work evaluated by not just anyone, but by their scientific peers. So those are really the important ones.
Steve: So, right now their work is evaluated by, let's call them amateurs who happen to be in positions of political authority.
Grifo: Well, one of the things that we're seeing is a deep, deep incursion by the Office of Management and Budget into the workings of agencies. Now recently, the Office of Management and Budget—OMB—has hired a few scientists but prior to this they were largely, you know, people with other disciplinary backgrounds who were trying to change what scientists and the agencies were doing and that just is not to the benefit of the American people.
Steve: Any effort by the UCS to get more scientists to run for public office right now? We have, I think, two physicists, in the house and some MDs but that's pretty much it.
Grifo: Well, we would love to see that, but that is not really our bread and butter, I mean, we are nonprofit, so we stay nonpartisan and honestly this is not a partisan issue, this is really something that is important, no matter who that next President is – Republican, Democrat or like, we have to go in and we have to try and change these things.
Steve: It's true. The only way you could remain nonpartisan is if two physicists ran against each other, I guess. Anyway thanks very much. Good talking to you.
Grifo: Thank you.
Steve: Let me make a quick correction, the actual law was that when requested, scientific information "prepared by government researchers and scientists shall be transmitted to congress uncensored and without delay," and the signing statement was: the President can tell researchers to withhold any information from congress if he decides its disclosure could impair foreign relations, national security or the workings of the executive branch, which could mean anything he wants it to mean. Here's an interesting few minutes with Anthony Robbins from the press conference. He is a former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Robbins: First, I think it's important to note that the Bush administration—they're surely the worst on this score. It's not the first, and it's not likely to be the last administration to misuse and mistreat science and scientists. The thing about this administration is that this activity seems to come straight down from the White House, reaching down below the policymakers to the scientists themselves. It's not sufficient for just elected officials and just scientists to understand their rights and responsibilities. This is, in fact, something that the public needs to understand. As you try... as we try to defend scientists and science, it's important to recognize that it is the scientists who serve as administrators and policy advisors who are the first line of defense. The problem of abusing science and scientists is rooted in the attitudes in the past history of people at the top. For many elected officials, for many lawyers, and for many appointed officials, the facts are negotiable. I worked for two governors, for several secretaries, in two different federal administrations. My agencies did science and were dependent on science, but repeatedly I found myself as the administrator at the top defending our science. Thus the first line of defense against abuse and corruption of science and scientists is with the scientists who have been appointed to run science programs in government. They are the ones who are up against the elected officials and others who believe that the facts are simply negotiable. Unfortunately, many scientists placed in these roles go over to the other side, it's not always easy to resist those pressures. Scientists must be given support to resist and it must be in their job descriptions, if you will. Let me recall just one story. When I was in NIOSH, I remember being called during the Carter's reelection campaign. I was called down to the secretary's office and apparently the White House wanted us to make a large grant to the University of Alabama so that they could announce it. Our study section had rejected this grant proposal on scientific grounds. I knew the science behind their decision and I also knew the law and the law said that the secretary decides. So, I offered to overrule our study section, if the secretary would order me in writing to do so. I'm pleased to say that Secretary Harris had the good sense—or sense of shame—not to do it and I never heard from her again. But imagine how much easier it would be for others in my position to say no, if these principles of scientific independence were well understood by everyone, the public included.
Steve: For more on the Union of Concerned Scientists, just go to http://www.ucsusa.org
Steve: It's April, time for a fresh issue of Scientific American magazine and I spoke with editorinchief, John Rennie, about what's in the new issue. Any April foolery?
Rennie: It's mostly the usual science, but there is a little hint of something a little more lighthearted that you'll find that's actually in connection with a story that we're doing by our resident skeptic. Michael Shermer wrote the story called "The Doping Dilemma," that takes a look at all the big controversies about the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports these days, all controversies in baseball, but also of course in things like professional cycling and lots of other sports. What Michael is writing about is, of course, that in a sense if you look at the strategies of what are implicit in the ways that
how people participate in these sports, whether or not they are punished for their involvement with taking these drugs or whether or not they actually benefit from them, he makes an argument that in great many sports, in effect, the deck is stacked to encourage people implicitly to take more drugs, because the benefits of winning more often and setting more records greatly offset the penalties people are likely to pay, and so he makes an argument to that by making certain kinds of adjustments in a lot of sports, we could use game theory to help guide ways of encouraging all of the athletes to discard their use of these drugs.
Steve: I would like to see some physicists trying to explain how game theory is going to help with the steroid problem [in] baseball [to] Bud Selig, the commissioner. That would be pretty interesting. So, what else [do] we have? I assume we've got this interesting piece on the new form of carbon.
Rennie: Right, right. This is the story "Carbon Wonderland," and it is writing about graphene. Graphene is an unusual form of carbon. In a sense, if you pick up any lead pencil, you've actually got an enormous amount of graphene that's there inside the graphite. Graphite is the very soft form of carbon. It consists of flat sheets of carbon molecules all arranged together. If you could separate out just one of those flat sheets from the graphite, you would have grapheme, and graphene is basically the same thing what you'd have if you took, like, a carbon nanotube and unroll[ed] them. It's one atom thick, but it has amazing electronic properties. And a lot of electrical engineers are very excited about the possibilities that we could make more use of graphene because electrons will travel through graphene faster than through any other material, so we could have a whole new material for the basis of future microelectronics.
Steve: So, somebody might be listening to this podcast one day on a graphene MP3 player. And the cover story is really pretty fascinating.
Rennie: Yes. This is something that's fun for anybody who is a science fiction fan and you've looked at people, movies, in star trek and the like and you see views of other planets and if you look at the vegetation, which is usually in the background, typically the vegetation you see that they'd set up in other planets are something that looks a lot like Earth vegetation, but the author Nancy Kiang is one of several scientists who has been working on the problem of trying to figure out what might plants on other worlds look like. In particular, the question is, what color would the plants be if they were on planets around other stars? Our sun is a nice yellow star and the reason that the chlorophyll of our plants is green is because most of our sun's sunlight energy is tied up in the red photons and in the blue photons, so our plants absorb those and they reflect away the remaining, largely green light. But on other worlds, the spectrum of light coming off of those stars would be quite a bit different and so the author explains why it is that you could be looking at worlds where plants could be black, why the job that they might be faced with would be one where they mostly need to try to reflect away a lot of sunlight, why they might be reddish in color, so it's a fun article because it does actually inform what it is when astronomers are now looking out into space and looking potentially at other planets and they are trying to detect signs of life. The key here is, you don't always just want to be looking for a trace of chlorophyll green.
Steve: And there's plenty more stuff and that's all in the April issue of what we like to call Scientific American.
Steve: Thanks, John.
Rennie: Thank you, Steve.
Steve: Now it is time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: The NBA's New Jersey Nets play the first carbon-neutral game in league history this week.
Story number 2: Cedric the Tasmanian Devil may hold the key to his species long-term survival because he has been found to be naturally immune to a strange facial cancer that's ravaging his fellow devils.
Story number 3: Get ready for a new kind of computer memory. It's called phase-change memory and it relies on a crystal material being in either one orientation or another.
And story number 4: A survey of sex therapists finds that they say that good sex should last at least 45 minutes.
Time here is up.
Story number 1 is true. The game in New Jersey between the Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers was carbon neutral. Emissions from players, staff and fan vehicle travels at the game and the arena's energy use were offset by the purchase of carbon credits to support energy-saving projects in India, China and Germany and the Nets lost, which means they will probably save even more energy during the playoffs by not being in them.
Story number 2 is true. A Tasmanian devil named Cedric is apparently immune to the devastating facial tumors that are in epidemic among the devils. If researchers can find the key to his immunity they might be able to create a vaccine. If not, they fear that Tasmanian devils could be gone within 20 years.
And story number 3 is true. Computer chips employing phase-change memory will be coming out later this year. They use what's called chalcogenide glass which can be heated or cooled into different orientations. Portions of the material can thus be switched between two states and that enables information to be stored. Gordon Moore of the Moore's Law fame predicted that phase-change memory would be in use by the end of the decade. The decade he was taking about however was the 1970s.
All of which means that story number 4 about sex therapists recommending at least 45 minutes per sexual session is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS, because a survey of U.S. and Canadian members of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research found that the professionals say that between seven and 13 minutes is optimal. The findings are available online in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Past research found that people said they wanted sex to last at least a half hour, but lead researcher psychologist, Eric Corty said this seems a situation ripe for disappointment and dissatisfaction. With this survey we hope to dispel just fantasies and encourage men and women with realistic data about acceptable sexual intercourse, thus preventing sexual disappointments and dysfunctions.
Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com and check out www.SciAm.com for the latest science news, all our different podcasts and the Extreme Tech feature. For Science Talk the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.