Friday, April 22, 2005

The Role of Science in Policymaking

As part of our celebration of the World Year of Physics, we had an unusual, but very good, colloquium in the physics department yesterday. The speaker was Mitchel Wallerstein, who is the Dean of Our Maxwell School. Mitch is a very experienced guy and a talented speaker. In the past he has been the Deputy Executive Officer of the National Academy of Sciences, and was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterproliferation Policy in the Defense Department. His topic was Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Terrorism: Two Dangerous Scenarios of the Post-9/11 Era. The talk was fascinating for at least two reasons. Firstly, it was packed full of information about nuclear weapons programs over the last 60 years, detailing which countries had ever had such weapons, which had started active programs but abandoned them, and which countries had at least openly discussed the option of setting up a weapons program. There were some surprising (to me) entries on that list, such as Sweden and Switzerland. The second reason I enjoyed the talk is that it gave one some limited insight into how issues like nuclear weapons, which physicists discuss frequently and heatedly among themselves, are viewed by authorities in a different sphere - that of public policy.

Mitch teaches a course next semester titled International Security and Asymmetric uses of Force, which sounds fascinating (if scary). I'm even toying with asking him if I might audit it and, if I did so, I would certainly blog about it. The course description reads
The end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the sole remaining superpower—the only one with truly global reach and overwhelming technological superiority—has forced state actors and non-state actors alike to fundamentally rethink basic conceptions of international security. Indeed, perhaps the principal lesson of the recent military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans is that, for the foreseeable future, there is no prospect for deterring, much less prevailing over, the United States through conventional alignments of military power. Most state actors have now recognized that such direct confrontations are an almost certain recipe for the defeat of the weaker party or parties.
This course will explore the theoretical, doctrinal and policy implications of this new reality, focusing in particular on the emergence of asymmetrical uses of force as a rational response by those unable to counter the U.S. through conventional means. After laying the conceptual groundwork through an examination of the contemporary (and likely future) international security environment, the course will explore in detail a variety of asymmetrical threats, including the use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological and chemical weapons), cyber-attacks, attacks on civil infrastructure (transportation, communications, electrical grids, etc.), attacks on agriculture, and others.
The course will be taught as a seminar, and enrollment will be limited to encourage class discussion. Students should expect an extensive reading list and will be evaluated, in part, on the basis of their class preparation and participation. Each member of the class will be expected to prepare a policy memorandum to the National Security Council inter-agency process concerning a selected asymmetric vulnerability and to participate in a group presentation. There also will be a second major writing assignment at the end of the semester that will take the form of either a scholarly paper or a take-home final exam.
Not the kind of language we physicists are used to!

Yesterday morning I served on a Ph.D. thesis defense committee. The candidate was Belkis Cabrera, one of our best graduate students. Belkis worked for Don Marolf, studying various aspects of string theory and gravity, and has been out at Santa Barbara with him for the last year or so. She did a great job of the defense and we were delighted to pass her. However, I mention this here not because I want to talk about string theory, but because of what Belkis is going to do next.

For the next year she will be a Science Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. This is a big step for Belkis. She is undoubtedly talented enough to continue on in a successful career in physics, but has decided that, for the meantime at least, she would like to get some experience in an entirely different realm. While I will miss Belkis for however long she is gone from the scientific research community, I am delighted to see such highly trained and scientifically knowledgeable people entering fields in which they may, ultimately, be able to have an impact on government policy. I'm even more convinced of the desparate need for such people after my disappointing experience listening to John Marburger speak, as I mentioned a few days ago. It is wonderful to educate people who go on to be professional physicists, doing fundamental research in our own, or other, fields, and pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge. As I've mentioned when discussing my own graduate students, this makes me very proud. However, I think we need to do everything we can to place people with a sound understanding of the scientific method in policymaking positions. Few people realize how much science pervades almost every aspect of our lives and, consequently, the potential for catastrophe when politics trumps good science.

I'm thinking of these issues particularly today, on Earth Day, while the New York Times is reporting that a Bush Administration's climate change study ignores many areas it is required to cover by law.
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