Too few fish in the sea
Carl Safina’s review of how traditional fisheries management strategies have failed both the fish and the fishermen is right on target, as are his recommendations for new management strategies (“A Future for U.S. Fisheries,” Issues, Summer 2009). But I encourage all of us who think about the ocean to expand our thinking: Fishing isn’t the only activity that affects fish, and the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) isn’t the only agency with jurisdiction over the ocean.
Traditional fisheries management has focused explicitly on fish, with plans addressing single species or groups of similar species. Traditional governance of resources has similarly focused on individual resources, ceding management of different resources to different agencies: fish to NMFS, oil to the Minerals Management Service, navigation to the Coast Guard. But increasingly, science is showing us that these seemingly disparate resources are delicately interconnected.
Discussion abounds in the scientific and popular media about dead zones and harmful algal blooms in the ocean and the nutrients from runoff that create them. Debate rages about the future of oil drilling and offshore renewable power sources in America’s energy future. Tensions and tempers continue to run high as the Navy develops sonar technology that could harm marine mammals. Congress is working up climate change legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
All of these activities affect the ocean and its inhabitants, and all of these activities affect one another. As we begin to move toward more integrated systems for managing fisheries, we must recognize the broader ocean and global ecosystem—including humans—and integrate it as well.
Toward that end, I have been working for nearly a decade in Congress on a piece of legislation: Oceans-21. It establishes a national ocean policy for the United States. It creates a governance system based on the notion that the multiagency approach we currently employ must be streamlined so we can continue to enjoy the many benefits the ocean provides us.
For too long we have reaped those benefits. We’ve harvested fish and extracted oil. We’ve hidden away our waste and pollution, pumping or dumping it offshore and out of sight. But the ocean’s bounty isn’t infinite, nor is its capacity to absorb our refuse. The time has finally come for us to recognize these truths and take action: We must learn to use the ocean in a sustainable way.
The ocean is the single largest natural resource on the planet and is critical to the habitability of our planet. It’s not just our fisheries that are at risk, but our very future.
Food for all
In “Abolishing Hunger” (Issues, Summer 2009), Ismail Serageldin presents a cohesive argument for action to abolish hunger while ensuring sustainable management of natural resources. I agree with the action he proposes, but I am concerned that such action will not be prioritized by those in charge. It is a long-standing lesson from historical developments and research that growth and development in agriculture are the key to successful economic growth and poverty alleviation in virtually every low-income developing country. That is so because most poor people are in rural areas and because agriculture usually is the best driver of general economic growth, generating $2 to $3 of general economic growth for every $1 of agricultural growth. Yet most African countries have failed to prioritize agricultural growth and development. Low-income developing countries with stagnant agriculture are almost certain to experience a stagnant economy and high levels of hunger and poverty.
The recent global food crisis is a warning of what can happen when the food system is ignored by policymakers. National governments must now make the necessary investments in public goods for agricultural development, such as rural infrastructure, market development, agricultural research, and appropriate technology. These public goods are essential for farmers and other private-sector agents to do what it takes to generate economic growth and reduce poverty and hunger within and outside the rural areas. Farmers and traders in areas without such public goods cannot expand production, increase productivity and incomes, reduce unit costs of production and marketing, and contribute to the eradication of hunger. When food prices increased during 2007 and the first half of 2008, farmers responded by increasing production. But virtually all the increase came from countries and regions with good infrastructure and access to modern technology. A large share of the world’s poor farmers could not respond. In fact, the majority of African farmers cannot even produce enough to feed their own families. They are net buyers of food and as such were negatively affected by the food price increase.
This has to change if hunger is to be abolished. The knowledge is available to do so. What is missing is the political will among most, but not all, national governments in both developing and developed countries. Large food price decreases from the mid-1970s to 2000 created a false complacency among policymakers and low incomes among farmers in developing countries. Both caused very low private and public investments in agriculture and rural public goods. The recent global food crisis changed all that; or did it? What we have seen is a great deal of conference activity, talk, and hand-wringing but very little action, except irresponsible trade policies and short-term policy interventions to protect urban consumers, who may be a threat to existing governments (remember food riots). The majority of the world’s poor, who reside in rural areas, are still being ignored, and in some cases exploited, and little investment is being made to produce more food, improve productivity, and reduce unit costs on small farms.
At each of several high-level international conferences dedicated to the food and hunger situation, promises were made for large amounts of money to be made available for long-term solutions. Most recently, the G8 meeting in Italy promised up to $20 billion for that purpose. “Up to” are key words. So far, only very small amounts of the money promised at the earlier conferences have in fact come forth, and much of what did materialize was merely transferred from other development activities instead of being additional funds. Will the $20 billion materialize and will governments in developing countries now begin to prioritize agricultural and rural development? If the answer to the second question is no, the global food crisis of 2007–2008 is going to look like child’s play compared to what is to come as climate change increases production fluctuations and makes large previously productive areas unproductive because of drought or floods, and as countries lose their trust in the international food market and pursue self-serving policies at the expense of neighboring countries, something that has already begun. The planet is perfectly capable of producing the food needed in the foreseeable future and eradicating hunger without damaging natural resources, but only with enlightened policies. The time to act is now.
Better science education
Reading Bruce Alberts’ article was nothing if not painful (“Restoring Science to Science Education,” Issues, Summer 2009). More than 40 years ago, I was deeply involved in the work of PSSC Physics, the Elementary Science Study, and the Introductory Physical Sciences program. The work of some of the nation’s most gifted scientists, mathematicians, and teachers, these instructional programs were brilliant responses to the very challenges that Alberts correctly describes. Those programs are now gone, replaced by precisely the kind of standards, materials, and tests they were themselves designed to replace.
But Alberts is right. We should be discouraged. There is a developing consensus that the instructional system is a shambles. Growing numbers of people understand that the standards we have been using—even those of states like California that have been widely admired—suffer from all the crippling defects Alberts catalogues; that American-style multiple-choice, computer-scored tests will never adequately capture the qualities of the greatest interest in student performance; that the materials we give our students stamp out wonder and competence and produce instead aversion to science. But there is a chance that we might get it right this time.
We have been benchmarking the performance of the countries with the most successful education systems for more than two decades. Unlike the United States, many use what we have come to call board examination systems. These systems consist, at the high-school level, of a core curriculum, each course in which is defined by a well-conceived syllabus emphasizing the conceptual foundations of the discipline, deep understanding of the content, and the ability to apply those concepts and use that deep content mastery to solve difficult and unfamiliar problems. Each course comes with an examination at the end that calls on the student to go far beyond recall of facts and procedures to demonstrate a real analytical understanding of the material and the ability to use it well. The grades are also based on substantial student projects undertaken during the year, doing work that could not possibly be done in a timed examination. Most of the questions on the exams are essay questions, and most of the scoring is done by human beings.
My guess is that if Alberts looked carefully at the curriculum and exams produced by the best of the world’s board examination organizations, he would agree that this country would be well served by simply asking our high schools to offer them to their students and then train those teachers to teach those courses well. This is a solution that is available today, and, if it were implemented, could vault the science performance of our high-school students from the bottom of the pack to the top, especially if we were to prepare our students in elementary and secondary school for the board examination programs they should be taking in high school.
Fully half of the “five-year plan” articles in the Summer 2009 edition of Issues called for research to advance various aspects of sustainable development. Unasked was the question, “Who is going to do the work?”
The present system for training and nurturing young scientists is almost certainly not up to the job. To foster “The Sustainability Transition” outlined by Pamela Matson, we need researchers capable not only of (i) doing very demanding cutting-edge science, but also of (ii) working with decisionmakers and other knowledge users to define and refine relevant questions; (iii) integrating the perspectives and methods of multiple disciplines in their quest for answers; and (iv) promoting their inevitably incomplete findings in the rough-and-tumble world of competing sound bites and conflicting political agendas. But such skills are neither taught in most contemporary science curricula nor rewarded in the climb up most academic ladders.
The challenge of doing the work to harness science for sustainable development is compounded by the fact that there is so much work to be done. Elinor Ostrom has argued forcefully that the dependence of human/environment interactions on local contexts means that we must move beyond panaceas in our quest for effective sustainability solutions. This also means, however, that we need lots of scientists and engineers working close to the ground in order to design interventions appropriate to particular places and sectors.
To be sure, a number of initiatives have been launched during the past several years that are beginning to address the human capital needs of harnessing science for a sustainability transition. As documented on the virtual Forum on Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development (), an increasing flow of use-inspired fundamental research on sustainability is finding its ways not only into top journals but also into effective practice at scales from the local to the global. Elements of the training needed to help a new generation of scholars contribute to this flow are increasingly available from the undergraduate to postdoctoral level, backed by an increasing number of novel fellowships. New programs, centers, and even schools of sustainability science and its relatives have been springing up around the world. But as encouraging as these signs of progress surely are, they almost certainly remain wholly inadequate to the challenges before us. An essential complement to the “five-year plans” sketched in Issues’ summer edition must therefore be a systematic and comprehensive effort to characterize, and then to build, the workforce we will need to carry them through. The President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, together with the National Academies, ought to give high priority to providing the U.S. leadership for such an initiative in building the science and technology workforce for a sustainability transition.
Pamela Matson’s article provides a compelling vision of the connection among science, nature, and the changes brought by a globalizing economy. This is a connection often described in terms of crises (climate change) or unbounded opportunity (the Internet). Matson takes a measured, sensible view, drawing attention to long-term transitions already in progress—in population, the economy, and the rising human imprint on nature. We do not yet know whether these transitions will lead toward sustainability: a durable, dynamic relationship with the natural world, in which the activities of one generation enhance the opportunities of future generations and conserve the life support systems on which they depend.
Examples from philanthropy show how science is essential to the search for sustainability. The Packard Foundation is probing consumption by supporting and evaluating the certification of products such as responsibly harvested fish. Does such an approach work to curb irresponsible harvest? Will organic food or carbon offsets scale up to dominate their markets? These are questions of sustainability science.
Together with the Moore Foundation, Packard has supported large-scale science-driven monitoring in the California Current. The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Study of the Coast Ocean has provided, in turn, much of the scientific basis for declaring marine reserves in California waters. Reserves are now under study in Oregon as well. Ecosystem-scale sustainability science has been developing the essential methods of integrating oceanography with nearshore biology. Ahead lies the exciting challenge of demonstrating, in partnership with government, the value of these approaches as the oceans acidify and warm, currents and upwellings change, and sea level rises. Without surveillance, humans will fail to see the warning signs of the thresholds that we and other living things are now crossing and needing to navigate.
For more than a decade, the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program has identified leading young environmental scientists; provided them training in science communications; and strengthened their voice in regional, national, and international policy debates. This too is sustainability science, in service of improved governance.
These three initiatives all aim at forging durable links between knowledge and action: science guided by the needs of users, relevant and timely, legitimate in a mistrustful world, and credible as a guide to difficult, consequential social choices.
Private donors’ means are meager in comparison to the needs of a sustainability transition. We and our grantees in the nonprofit sector need to collaborate far more and more effectively with business and government. As Matson urges, there are institutions to be engaged—not least the National Academies and the global resources of science. It is not that there is no time. But there may not be enough time, unless we seize this day.
Energy nuts and bolts
Vaclav Smil’s “U.S. Energy Policy: The Need for Radical Departures” (Issues, Summer 2009) is filled with wise insights and judgments. However, the use of vague language detracts from the article’s value for public policy (for example, “vigorous quest,” “relentless enhancement,“ “fundamental reshaping,” “responsible residential zoning,” and “serious commitment.”) These kinds of broad, unbounded adjectives appear in numerous reports on energy policy nowadays. They give the illusion of meaningful policy prescription, when in fact nothing useful can follow without the hard work of drawing boundaries on the scope, cost, and timing of programs—work that presumably is thought to be so trivial that it can be left to legislative bodies, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations to fill in the details.
Admittedly, there is only so much an analyst can do in one brief article. And laying out an abstract goal for Congress and other leaders, as Smil does so well, is in itself useful, particularly when the goal has a realistic time frame. However, we do not live in a world where wise people sit down together, think about what would be best, and join hands to put wise proposals into effect. We live in a messy, contentious world, where different stakeholders with different ideological biases, philosophies, and personal interests argue with each other, often to the point of paralysis. Programs are put into place by one party, only to be replaced by the other party after subsequent elections. A major challenge is to develop and negotiate energy transition policies that the great majority of stakeholders can accept; policies that are likely to survive party transitions. This is not just the job of legislators and lobbyists. Academics and other outside observers knowledgeable about energy issues could usefully spend time developing policies that are optimal from the perspective of negotiated conflict resolution, rather than from an individual’s view of an optimal world.
Daniel Sarewitz’s “The Rightful Place of Science” (Issues, Summer 2009) is naive. Can he actually believe that U.S. presidents rely on science to drive policy, rather than using science to promote political ends? The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, for example, exists less for providing advice and guidance than as a means to support and promote the policy views of the president.
By acknowledging President Obama’s support for increased spending on scientific research as the price to pay for congressional passage of his economic stimulus package, Sarewitz does show some recognition of the link between science policy and politics. He makes reference to the attitude toward science by several presidential administrations since the Eisenhower years, but inexplicably fails to mention President Bill Clinton or his science and technology czar, Al Gore. One wonders whether Sarewtiz is amnesic about that period, or as a loyal Democrat and science policy wonk is just embarrassed by it. In spite of the blunders and clumsy manipulation by George W. Bush and his minions, arguably the blatant and heavy-handed politicization of science by Vice-President Gore was the most egregious of all.
In government, the choice of personnel is often tantamount to the formulation of policy, and as vice-president, Gore surrounded himself with yesmen and anti-science, anti-technology ideologues: presidential science adviser Jack Gibbons; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief and Gore acolyte Carol Browner, whose agency’s policies were consistently dictated by environmental extremists and were repeatedly condemned by the scientific community and admonished by the courts; Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Jane Henney, selected for the position as a political payoff for politicizing the agency’s regulation while she was its deputy head; State Department Undersecretary Tim Wirth, who worked tirelessly to circumvent Congress’s explicit refusal to ratify radical, wrong-headed, anti-science treaties signed by the Clinton administration; and U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Ellen Haas, former director of an anti-technology advocacy group, who deconstructed science thusly, “You can have ‘your’ science or ‘my’ science or ‘somebody else’s’ science. By nature, there is going to be a difference.”
Many Obama appointees who will be in a position to influence science-and technology-related issues are overtly hostile to modern technology and the industries that use it: Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture; Joshua Sharfstein, deputy FDA commissioner; Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator; and Carol Browner (she’s baaack!), coordinator of environmental policy throughout the executive branch. None of them has shown any understanding of or appreciation of science. Browner was responsible for gratuitous EPA regulations that have slowed the application of biotechnology to agriculture and to environmental problems; Jackson worked in the EPA’s notorious Superfund program for many years; and Merrigan relentlessly promoted the organic food industry, in spite of the facts that organic foods’ high costs make them unaffordable for many Americans, thereby discouraging the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables; and because of their low yields, are wasteful of farmland and water. While a staffer for the Senate Agriculture Committee, Merrigan was completely uneducable about the importance of genetically improved plant varieties to advances in agriculture.
As Sarewitz says, the “rightful place” of science is hard to find. The Obama administration’s minions are not likely to take us there, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
Paying for pavement
Martin Wachs’ “After the Motor Fuel Tax: Reshaping Transportation Financing” (Issues, Summer 2009) paints a clear picture of what ails the current U.S. system of revenue-raising that uses motor fuel taxes and other indirect user fees to fund roads and mass transit needs. The article also points to a new direction: pricing travel more fairly using a flexible approach that is based on vehicle-miles traveled (VMT).
The past two to three decades have dramatically exposed the weaknesses of the motor fuel tax: substantial gains in fuel economy, the development of hybrid and other alternative-fuel vehicles, and a concerted effort to reduce the United States’ overreliance on fossil fuels. We now find ourselves in the questionable position of relying on taxing the very fuels whose consumption we are trying to curtail or eliminate. When we add the growth in truck VMT and overall travel and the eroding effects of inflation on a federal fuel tax that has not been raised in more than 20 years, it is not surprising that the Federal Highway Trust Fund has, and will continue to, experience deficits and require periodic infusions from the General Fund.
The Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is based on the motor fuel tax, was set up more than 50 years ago to ensure a dependable source of financing for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and the Federal Aid Highway Program. Given the shortcomings described above, we can conclude that the motor fuel tax is no longer a “dependable source of financing” for the transportation system.
What is the alternative? Recent commission reports and studies point to distance-based charges or VMT fees as the most promising mid- to long-term solution to replace the fuel tax. The use of direct VMT fees can overcome most, if not all, shortcomings of the fuel tax. Furthermore, because VMT fees relate directly to the amount of travel, rates can be made to vary so as to provide incentives to achieve policy objectives, including greater fuel economy and the use of alternative-fuel vehicles, which the current fuel tax encourages. In addition, however, rates could vary to include factors such as weight, level of emissions, and time-of-day charges. For example, Germany’s national Toll Collect distance- and global positioning system (GPS)–based system for trucks varies the basic toll rate as a function of the number of axles and level of truck emission.
Non-GPS technology is currently available that makes it possible to conduct a large-scale implementation of distance-based charges within two to five years. This approach would use a connection to the vehicle’s onboard diagnostic port, installed in all vehicles since 1996, to obtain speed and time. An onboard device uses these inputs to calculate distance traveled and the appropriate charge, which are the only information that could be sent by the vehicle onboard unit to an office for billing purposes. This approach goes a long way toward addressing public concern about a potential invasion of privacy. (There is a widespread perception that a GPS-based VMT charging system “tracks” where a driver is. This is an unfortunate misconception.)
Given the crisis that road and transit funding is facing, we strongly endorse Wachs’ “hope that Congress will accept the opportunity and begin specifying the architecture of a national system of direct user charges.”
Lewis Branscomb’s “A Focused Approach to Society’s Grand Challenges” (Issues, Summer 2009) offers a good measure of astute analysis and worldliness to research and innovation policymaking in the Obama administration. Yet there is an irony underlying the “Jeffersonian science” approach that, if not dealt with head-on, may derail even the most intelligent and wise of prescriptions.
In my reading of the ongoing attempts to re-label (rather than actually reorient) publicly sponsored knowledge and innovation activities, Jeffersonian science has much in common with Donald Stokes’ earlier “Pasteur’s Quadrant,” as well as with the older, more prosaic, and more institutionally grounded “mission-oriented basic research.” Whatever you call it, this kind of research is not the pure, curiosity-motivated stuff that the National Science Foundation (NSF) was supposed to fund in the Endless Frontier model, but rather the stuff that the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and, eventually, Energy were supposed to fund.
Nevertheless, it seems—and here is the irony, as well as the way in which both Jeffersonian science and Pasteur’s Quadrant conceal it—that NSF has found better ways of eliciting and sponsoring this kind of research than the mission agencies have. NSF has done this through several mechanisms, including the increasing importance it has placed on centers, such as the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers that are the centerpiece of its involvement in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (full disclosure: I direct one such center); its commitment, however partially realized, to evaluating all peer-reviewed proposals according to a “broader impacts” criterion as well as an “intellectual merit” criterion; and its support (again, contrary to its initial Bushian conception) of a robust set of research programs in the social sciences, in particular in the ethics, values, and social and policy studies of science and technology.
This suite of mechanisms has meant, in my experience, a much more receptive atmosphere at NSF than at the mission agencies for engaging in the kind of transdisciplinary collaborations among social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers that are necessary to understand and manage, as Branscomb delineates, policies to address the “institutions and organizations that finance and perform R&D; … attend to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies; and manage matters related to such issues as intellectual property, taxes, monetary functions, and trade.”
I am thus skeptical that the “four-step analytical policy framework” that Branscomb advances from Charles Weiss and William Bonvillian will have much success in the mission agencies unless it is wed to a new understanding in those agencies; for example, that the “weaknesses and problems [emerging energy technologies] might face in a world market” have to do with many more dimensions than scientific novelty, engineering virtuosity, and economic efficiency, or that the “barriers to commercialization” that must be “overcome” in part involve how innovation happens and who does it and for and to whom, as well as what attitudes toward innovation people and institutions have.
A Jeffersonian science program that fulfills Branscomb’s ambitions would need much more than “greater depth scientifically.” It would need robust incentives for understanding the multiple disciplinary and societal dimensions of innovation and a merit review process, including written solicitations, program officers, and peer reviewers, that embraced the Jeffersonian ideal and was not beholden to outmoded ideas of research and development.