In “Advancing Evidence-Based Policymaking to Solve Social Problems” (Issues, Fall 2013), Jeffrey B. Liebman has written an informative and thoughtful article on the potential contribution of empirical analysis to the formation of social policy. I particularly commend his recognition that society faces uncertainty when making policy choices and his acknowledgment that learning what works requires a willingness to try out policies that may not succeed.
He writes “If the government or a philanthropy funds 10 promising early childhood interventions and only one succeeds, and that one can be scaled nationwide, then the social benefits of the overall initiative will be immense.” He returns to reinforce this theme at the end of the article, writing “What is needed is a decade in which we make enough serious attempts at developing scalable solutions that, even if the majority of them fail, we still emerge with a set of proven solutions that work.”
Unfortunately, much policy analysis does not exhibit the caution that Liebman displays. My recent book Public Policy in an Uncertain World observes that analysts often suffer from incredible certitude. Exact predictions of policy outcomes are common, and expressions of uncertainty are rare. Yet predictions are often fragile, with conclusions resting on critical unsupported assumptions or on leaps of logic. Thus, the certitude that is frequently expressed in policy analysis often is not credible.
A disturbing feature of recent policy analysis is that many researchers overstate the informativeness of randomized experiments. It has become common to use two of the terms in the Liebman article—”evidence-based policymaking” and “rigorous evaluation methods”—as code words for such experiments. Randomized experiments sometimes enable one to draw credible policy-relevant conclusions. However, there has been a lamentable tendency of researchers to stress the strong internal validity of experiments and downplay the fact that they often have weak external validity. (An analysis is said to have internal validity if its findings about the study population are credible. It has external validity if one can credibly extrapolate the findings to the real policy problem of interest.)
Another manifestation of incredible certitude is that governments produce precise official forecasts of unknown accuracy. A leading case is Congressional Budget Office scoring of the federal debt implications of pending legislation. Scores are not accompanied by measures of uncertainty, even though legislation often proposes complex changes to federal law, whose budgetary implications must be difficult to foresee.
Why do policy analysts express certitude about policy impacts that, in fact, are rather difficult to assess? A proximate answer is that analysts respond to incentives. The scientific community rewards strong, novel findings. The public takes a similar stance, expecting unequivocal policy recommendations. These incentives make it tempting for researchers to maintain assumptions far stronger than they can persuasively defend, in order to draw strong conclusions.
We would be better off we were to face up to the uncertainties that attend policy formation. Some contentious policy debates stem from our failure to admit what we do not know. Credible analysis would make explicit the range of outcomes that a policy might realistically produce. We would do better to acknowledge that we have much to learn than to act as if we already know the truth.
CHARLES F. MANSKI
Board of Trustees Professor in Economics and Fellow of the Institute for Policy Research
Manski is author of Public Policy in an Uncertain World: Analysis and Decisions (Harvard University Press, 2013).
With “When All Models Are Wrong” (Issues, Winter 2014), Andrea Saltelli and Silvio Funtowicz add to a growing literature of guidance on handling scientific evidence for scientists and policymakers; recent examples include Sutherland, Spiegelhalter, and Burgman’s “Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims,” and Chris Tyler’s “Top 20 things scientists need to know about policymaking.” Their particular focus on models is timely as complex issues are of necessity being handled through modeling, prone though models and model users are to misuse and misinterpretation.
Saltelli and Funtowicz provide mercifully few (7, more memorable than 20) “rules,” sensibly presented more as guidance and, in their words, as an adjunct to essential critical vigilance. There is one significant omission; a rule 8 should be “Test models against data”! Rule 1 (clarity) is important in enabling others to understand and gain confidence in a model, although it risks leading to oversimplification; models are used because the world is complex. Rule 3 might more kindly be rephrased as “Detect overprecision”; labeling important economic studies such as the Stern review as “pseudoscience” seems harsh. Although studies of this type can be overoptimistic in terms of what can be said about the future, they can also represent an honest best attempt, within the current state of knowledge (hopefully better than guesswork), rather than a truly pseudoscientific attempt to cloak prejudice in scientific language. Perhaps also, the distinction between prediction and forecasting has not been recognized here; more could also have been made of the policy-valuable role of modeling in exploring scenarios. But these comments should not detract from a useful addition to current guidance.
Those visiting New York City’s Park Avenue through July 20th will experience a sort of “creative disruption.” Where one would expect to see only the usual mix of cars, tall buildings, and crowded sidewalks, there will also be larger-than-life white paper-like forms that seem to be blowing down the middle of the street, dancing and lurching in the wind. The sight has even slowed the pace of the city’s infamously harried residents, who cannot resist the invitation to stop and enjoy.
Alice Aycock’s series of seven enormous sculptures in painted aluminum and fiberglass is called “Park Avenue Paper Chase” and stretches from 52nd Street to 66th Street. The forms, inspired by spirals, whirlwinds, and spinning tops, are hardly the normal view on a busy city street. According to Aycock, “I tried to visualize the movement of wind energy as it flowed up and down the avenue creating random whirlpools, touching down here and there and sometimes forming dynamic three-dimensional massing of forms. The sculptural assemblages suggest waves, wind turbulence, turbines, and vortexes of energy…. Much of the energy of the city is invisible. It is the energy of thought and ideas colliding and being transmitted outward. The works are the metaphorical visual residue of the energy of New York City.”
Aycock’s work tends to draw from diverse subjects and ideas ranging from art history to scientific concepts (both current and outdated). The pieces in “Park Avenue Paper Chase” visually reference Russian constructivism while being informed by mathematical phenomena as found in wind and wave currents. Far from forming literal theoretical models, Aycock’s sculptures seem to combine seemingly disjointed ideas together intuitively into forms that make visual sense. Form combined with their placement on Park Avenue work together to disorient the viewer, at least temporarily, to capture the imagination and to challenge perceptions.
Aycock’s art career began in the early 1970s and has included installations at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Art Institute, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, as well as installations in many public spaces such as Dulles International Airport, the San Francisco Public Library, and John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thomas Schulte and Fine Art Partners, Berlin, Germany. Photos by Dave Rittinger.
ALICE AYCOCK, Cyclone Twist (Park Avenue Paper Chase), Painted aluminum, 27′ high × 15′ diameter, Edition of 2, 2013. The sculpture is currently installed at 57th Street on Park Avenue.
ALICE AYCOCK, Hoop-La (Park Avenue Paper Chase), Painted aluminum and steel, 19′ high × 17′ wide × 24′ long, Edition of 2, 2014. The sculpture is currently installed at 53rd Street on Park Avenue.
It is interesting to consider why such guidance should be necessary at this time. The need emerges from the inadequacies of undergraduate science education, especially in Britain where school and undergraduate courses are so narrowly focused (unlike the continental baccalaureate which at least includes some philosophy). British undergraduates get little training in the philosophy and epistemology of science. We still produce scientists whose conceptions of “fact” and “truth” remain sturdily Logical Positivist, lacking understanding of the provisional, incomplete nature of scientific evidence. Likewise, teaching about the history and sociology of science is unusual. Few learn the skills of accurate scientific communication to nonscientists. These days, science students may learn about industrial applications of science, but few hear about its role in public policy. Many scientists (not just government advisers) appear to misunderstand the relationship between the conclusions they are entitled to draw about real-world problems and the wider issues involved in formulating and testing ideas about how to respond to them. Even respected scientists often put forward purely technocratic “solutions,” betraying ignorance of the social, economic, and ethical dimensions of problems, and thereby devaluing science advice in the eyes of the public and policymakers.
Saltelli and Funtowicz’ helpful checklist contributes to improving this situation, but we need to make radical improvements to the ways we train our young scientists if we are to bridge the science/policy divide more effectively.
Centre for Science and Policy
Department of Geography
University of Cambridge
In “Sea Power in the Robotic Age” (Issues, Winter 2014), Bruce Berkowitz describes an impressive range of features and potential missions for unmanned maritime systems (UMSs). Although he’s rightly concerned with autonomy in UMSs as an ethical and legal issue, most of the global attention has been on autonomy in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Here’s why we may be focusing on the wrong robots.
The need for autonomy is much more critical for UMSs. UAVs can communicate easily with satellites and ground stations to receive their orders, but it is notoriously difficult to broadcast most communication signals through liquid water. If unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), such as robot submarines, need to surface in order to make a communication link, they will give away their position and lose their stealth advantage. Even unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), or robot boats, that already operate above water face greater challenges than UAVs, such as limited line-of-sight control because of a two-dimensional operating plane, heavy marine weather that can interfere with sensing and communications, more obstacles on the water than in the air, and so on.
All this means that there is a compelling need for autonomy in UMSs, more so than in UAVs. And that’s why truly autonomous capabilities will probably emerge first in UMSs. Oceans and seas also are much less active environments than land or air: There are far fewer noncombatants to avoid underwater. Any unknown submarine, for instance, can reasonably be presumed not to be a recreational vehicle operated by an innocent individual. So UMSs don’t need to worry as much about the very difficult issue of distinguishing lawful targets from unlawful ones, unlike the highly dynamic environments in which UAVs and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) operate.
Therefore, there are also lower barriers to deploying autonomous systems in the water than in any other battlespace on Earth. Because the marine environment makes up about 70% of Earth’s surface, it makes sense for militaries to develop UMSs. Conflicts are predicted to increase there, for instance, as Arctic ice melts and opens up strategic shipping lanes that nations will compete for.
Of course, UAVs have been getting the lion’s share of global attention. The aftermath images of UAV strikes are violent and visceral. UAVs tend to have sexy/scary names such as Ion Tiger, Banshee, Panther, and Switchblade, while UMSs have more staid and nondescript names such as Seahorse, Scout, Sapphire, and HAUV-3. UUVs also mostly look like standard torpedoes, in contrast to the more foreboding and futuristic (and therefore interesting) profiles of Predator and Reaper UAVs.
For those and other reasons, UMSs have mostly been under the radar in ethics and law. Yet, as Berkowitz suggests, it would benefit both the defense and global communities to address ethics and law issues in this area in advance of an international incident or public outrage—a key lesson from the current backlash against UAVs. Some organizations, such as the Naval Postgraduate School’s CRUSER consortium, are looking at both applications and risk, and we would all do well to support that research.
Visiting Associate Professor
School of Engineering
Director and Associate Philosophy Professor
Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, California
Robots aren’t taking your job
Perhaps a better title for “Anticipating a Luddite Revival” (Issues, Spring 2014) might be “Encouraging a Luddite Revival,” for Stuart Elliot significantly overstates the ability of information technology (IT) innovations to automate work. By arguing that as many as 80% of jobs will be eliminated by technology in as soon as two decades, Elliot is inflaming Luddite opposition.
Elliot does attempt to be scholarly in his methodology to predict the scope of technologically based automation. His review of past issues of IT scholarly journals attempts to understand tech trends, while his analysis of occupation skills data (O-NET) attempts to assess what occupations are amenable to automation.
But his analysis is faulty on several levels. First, to say that a software program might be able to mimic some human work functions (e.g., finding words in a text) is completely different than saying that the software can completely replace a job. Many information-based jobs involve a mix of both routine and nonroutine tasks, and although software-enabled tools might be able to help with routine tasks, they have a much harder time with the nonroutine ones.
Second, many jobs are not information-based but involve personal services, and notwithstanding progress in robotics, we are a long, long way away from robots substituting for humans in this area. Robots are not going to drive the fire truck to your house and put out a fire anytime soon.
ALICE AYCOCK, Spin-the-Spin (Park Avenue Paper Chase), Painted aluminum, 18′ high × 15′ wide × 20′ long, Edition of 2, 2014. The sculpture is currently installed at 55th Street on Park Avenue.
Moreover, although it’s easy to say that the middle level O-NET tasks “appear to be roughly comparable to the types of tasks now being described in the research literature,” it’s quite another to give actual examples, other than some frequently cited ones such as software-enabled insurance underwriting. In fact, the problem with virtually all of the “robots are taking our jobs” claims is that they suffer from the fallacy of composition. Proponents look at the jobs that are relatively easy to automate (e.g., travel agents) and assume that: (1) these jobs will all be automated quickly, and (2) all or most jobs fit into this category. Neither is true. We still have over half a million bank tellers (with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting an increase in the next 10 years), long after the introduction of ATMs. Moreover, most jobs are actually quite hard to automate, such as maintenance and repair workers, massage therapists, cooks, executives, social workers, nursing home aides, and sales reps, to list just a few.
I am somewhat optimistic that this vision of massive automation may in fact come true perhaps by the end of the century, for it would bring increases in living standards (with no change in unemployment rates). But there is little evidence for Elliot’s claim of “a massive transformation in the labor market over the next few decades.” In fact the odds are much higher that U.S. labor productivity growth will clock in well below 3% per year (the highest rate of productivity the United States ever achieved).
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
Climate change on the right
In Washington, every cause becomes a conduit for special-interest solicitation. Causes that demand greater transfers of wealth and power attract more special interests. When these believers of convenience successfully append themselves to the original cause, it compounds and extends the political support. When it comes to loading up a bill this way, existential causes are the best of all and rightfully should be viewed with greatest skepticism. As Steven E. Hayward notes in “Conservatism and Climate Science” (Issues, Spring 2014), the Waxman-Markey bill was a classic example of special-interest politics run amok.
So conservatives are less skeptical about science than they are about scientific justifications for wealth transfers and losses of liberty. Indeed, Yale professor Dan Kahan found, to his surprise, that self-identified Tea Party members scored better than the population average on a standard test of scientific literacy. Climate policy right-fully elicits skepticism from conservatives, although the skepticism is often presented as anti-science.
Climate activists have successfully and thoroughly confused the climate policy debate. They present the argument this way: (1) Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas emitted by human activity; (2) human emissions of carbon dioxide will, without question, lead to environmental disasters of unbearable magnitude; and (3) our carbon policy will effectively mitigate these disasters. The implication swallowed by nearly the entire popular press is that point one (which is true) proves points two and three.
In reality, the connections between points one and two and between points two and three are chains made up of very weak links. The science is so unsettled that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cannot choose from among the scores of models it uses to project warming. It hardly matters; the accelerating warming trends that all of them predict are not present in the data (in fact the trend has gone flat for 15 years), nor do the data show any increase in extreme weather from the modest warming of the past century. This provokes the IPCC to argue that the models have not been proven wrong (because their projections are so foggy as to include possible decades of cooling) and that with certain assumptions, some of them predict really bad outcomes.
Not wanting to incur trillions of dollars of economic damage based on these models is not anti-science, which brings us to point three.
Virtually everyone agrees that none of the carbon policies offered to date will have more than a trivial impact on world temperature, even if the worst-case scenarios prove true. So the argument for the policies degenerates to a world of tipping points and climate roulette wheels—there is a chance that this small change will occur at a critical tipping point. That is, the trillions we spend might remove the straw that would break the back of the camel carrying the most valuable cargo. With any other straw or any other camel there would be no impact.
So however unscientific it may seem in the contrived all-or-none climate debate, conservatives are on solid ground to be skeptical.
DAVID W. KREUTZER
Research Fellow in Energy Economics and Climate Change
The Heritage Foundation
Steven E. Hayward claims that the best framework for addressing large-scale disruptions, including climate change, is building adaptive resiliency. If so, why does he not present some examples of what he has in mind, after dismissing building seawalls, moving elsewhere, or installing more air conditioners as defeatist? What is truly defeatist is prioritizing adaptation over prevention, i.e., the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Others concerned with climate change have a different view. As economist William Nordhaus has pointed out (The Climate Casino, Yale University Press, 2013), in areas heavily managed by humans, such as health care and agriculture, adaptation can be effective and is necessary, but some of the most serious dangers, such as ocean acidification and losses of biodiversity, are unmanageable and require mitigation of emissions if humanity is to avoid catastrophe. This two-pronged response combines cutting back emissions with reactively adapting to those we fail to cut back.
Hayward does admit that our capacity to respond to likely “tipping points” is doubtful. Why then does he not see that mitigation is vital and must be pursued far more vigorously than in the past? Nordhaus has estimated that the cost of not exceeding a temperature increase of 2°C might be 1 to 2% of world income if worldwide cooperation could be assured. Surely that is not too high a price for insuring the continuance of human society as we know it!
ALICE AYCOCK, Twin Vortexes (Park Avenue Paper Chase), Painted aluminum, 12′ high × 12′ wide × 18′ long, Edition of 2, 2014. The sculpture is currently installed at 54th Street on Park Avenue.
ALICE AYCOCK, Maelstrom (Park Avenue Paper Chase), Painted aluminum 12′ high × 16′ wide × 67′ long, Edition of 2, 2014. The sculpture is currently installed between 52nd and 53rd Streets on Park Avenue. Detail opposite.
Hayward states that “Conservative skepticism is less about science per se than its claims to usefulness in the policy realm.” But climate change is a policy issue that science has placed before the nations of the world, and science clearly has a useful role in the policy response, both through the technologies of emissions control and by adaptive agriculture and public health measures. To rely chiefly on “adaptive resiliency” and not have a major role for emissions control is to tie one hand behind one’s back.
Regents’ Professor of Ecology Emeritus
University of Minnesota
Steven E. Hayward should be commended for his thoughtful article, in which he explains why political conservatives do not want to confront the challenge of climate change. Nevertheless, the article did not increase my sympathy for the conservative position, and I would like to explain why.
Hayward begins by explaining why appeals to scientific authority alienate conservatives. Science is not an endeavor that anyone must accept on the word of authority. People should feel free to examine and question scientific work and results. But it doesn’t make sense to criticize science without making an effort to thoroughly understand the science first: the hypotheses together with the experiments that attempt to prove them. What too many conservatives do is deny the science out of hand without understanding it well, dismissing it because of a few superficial objections. I read of one skeptic who dismissed global warming because water vapor is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. That’s true, but someone who thinks through the argument will understand why that doesn’t make carbon dioxide emissions less of a problem. Climate change is a challenge that we may not agree on how to confront, but that doesn’t excuse any of us from thinking it through carefully.
Hayward points out that “the climate enterprise is the largest crossroads of physical and social science ever contemplated.” That may be true, but conservatives don’t separate the two, and they should. If the science is wrong, they need to explain how the data is flawed, or the theory has not taken into account all the variables, or the statistical analysis is incorrect, or that the data admits of more than one interpretation. If the policy prescriptions are wrong, then they need to explain why these prescriptions will not obtain the results we seek or how they will cost more than the benefits they will provide. Then they need to come up with better alternatives. But too many conservatives don’t separate the science from policy, they conflate the two together. They accuse the scientists of being liberals, and then they won’t consider either the science or the policy. That’s just wrong.
Hayward further explains that conservatives “doubt you can ever understand all the relevant linkages correctly or fully, and especially in the policy responses put forth that emphasize the combination of centralized knowledge with centralized power.” I agree with that, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to prevent serious problems. Hayward’s statement is a powerful argument for caution, but policy often has unintended consequences, and when we’re faced with a threat, we act. We didn’t understand all consequences of entering World War II, building the atomic bomb, passing the Civil Rights Act, inventing Social Security, or going to war in Afghanistan, but we did them because we thought we had to. Then we dealt with the consequences as best we could. Climate change should be no different.
The weakest part of Hayward’s article is his charge that “the American scientific community—or at least certain vocal parts of it—is susceptible to the charge that it has become an ideological faction.” Now I’m not sure that scientists are the monolithic block Hayward makes then out to be (can he point to a poll?). But even if it is true, it is entirely irrelevant. Scientific work always deserves to be evaluated on its own merits, regardless of whatever personal leanings the investigators might have. Good scientific work is objective and verifiable, and if the investigators are allowing their work to be influenced by their personal biases, that should come out in review, especially if many scientific studies of the same phenomenon are being evaluated. The political leanings of the investigators are a very bad reason for ignoring their work.
Just a couple of other points. Hayward states that “Future historians are likely to regard as a great myopic mistake the collective decision to treat climate change as more or less a large version of traditional air pollution to be attacked with the typical emissions control policies,” but it is hard to see how the problem of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere can be resolved any other way. We can’t get a handle on global warming unless we find a way to limit emissions of greenhouse gases (or counterbalance the emissions with sequestration, which will take just as much effort). Emissions control is not just a tactic, it is a central goal, just like fighting terrorism and curing cancer are central goals. We might fail to achieve them, but that shouldn’t happen because of lack of trying. We need to be patient and persevere. If we environmentalists are correct, the evidence will mount, and public opinion will eventually side with us. By beginning to work on emissions control now, we will all be in a better position to move quickly when the political winds shift in our favor.
Hayward’s alternative to an aggressive climate policy is what he calls “building adaptive resiliency,” but he is very vague about what that means. Does he mean that individuals and companies should adapt to climate change on their own, or that governments need to promote resiliency; but if so, how? The point of environmentalists is that even if we are able to adapt to climate change without large loss of life and property, it will be far more expensive then than if we take direct measures to confront the source of the problem—carbon emissions—now. And we really don’t have much time. If the climate scientists are correct, we have only 50 to 100 years before some of the worst effects of climate change start hitting us. Considering the size and complexity of the problem and the degree of cooperation that any serious effort to address climate change will require from all levels of governments, companies, and private individuals, that’s not a lot of time. We had better get moving.
ALICE AYCOCK, Waltzing Matilda (Park Avenue Paper Chase), Reinforced fiberglass, 15′ high × 15′ wide × 18′ long, Edition of 2, 2014. The sculpture is currently installed at 56th Street on Park Avenue.
Hayward earns our gratitude for helping us better understand how conservatives feel on this important issue. Nevertheless, the conservative movement is full of bright and intelligent people who could be making many valuable contributions and ideas to the climate debate, and they’re not. That’s a real shame.
MICHAEL H. KLEIN
Brooklyn, New York
Does U.S. science still rule?
In “Is U.S. Science in Decline?” (Issues, Spring 2014), Yu Xie offers a glimpse into the plight of early-career scientists. The gravity of the situation cannot be understated. Many young researchers have become increasingly disillusioned and frustrated about their career trajectory because of declining federal support for basic scientific research.
Apprehension among early-career scientists is rooted in the current fiscal environment. In fiscal year 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded fewer than 700 grants due to sequestration: the across-the-board spending cuts that remain an albatross for the entire research community. To put this into context, the success rate for grant applications is now one out of six and may worsen if sequestration is not eliminated. This has left many young researchers rethinking their career prospects. In 1980, close to 18% of all principal investigators (PIs) were age 36 and under, and the percentage has fallen to about 3% in recent years. NIH Director Francis Collins, has said that the federal funding climate for research “keeps me awake at night,” and echoed this sentiment at a recent congressional hearing: “I am worried that the current financial squeeze is putting them [early-career scientists] in particular jeopardy in trying to get their labs started, in trying to take on things that are innovative and risky.” Samantha White, a public policy fellow for Research!America, a nonprofit advocacy alliance, sums up her former career path as a researcher in two words: “anxiety-provoking.” She left bench work temporarily to support research in the policy arena, describing to lawmakers the importance of a strong investment in basic research.
The funding squeeze has left scientists with limited resources and many of them, like White, pursuing other avenues. More than half of academic faculty members and PIs say they have turned away promising new researchers since 2010 because of the minimal growth of the federal science agencies’ budgets, and nearly 80% of scientists say they spend more time writing grant applications, according to a survey by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Collins lamented this fact in a USA Today article: “We are throwing away probably half of the innovative, talented research proposals that the nation’s finest biomedical community has produced,” he said. “Particularly for young scientists, they are now beginning to wonder if they are in the wrong field. We have a serious risk of losing the most important resource that we have, which is this brain trust, the talent and the creative energies of this generation of scientists.”
U.S. Nobel laureates relied on government funding early in their careers to advance research that helped us gain a better understanding of how to treat and prevent deadly diseases. We could be squandering opportunities for the next generation of U.S. laureates if policymakers fail to make a stronger investment in medical research and innovation.
Chief Operating Officer
Junbo Yu’s article “The Politics Behind China’s Quest for Nobel Prizes” (Issues, Spring 2014) tells an interesting story about how China is applying its strategy for winning Olympic gold to science policy. The story might fit well with the Western stereotype of the Communist bureaucrats, but the real politics of it are more complex and nuanced.
First of all, let’s get the story straight. The article refers to a recent “10,000 Talent” program run by the organizational department of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a major talent development program aimed at selecting and supporting domestic talents in various areas, including scientists, young scholars, entrepreneurs, best teachers, and skilled engineers. The six scientists referred to in Yu’s article were among the 277 people who were identified as the first cohort of the talents. Although there were indeed media reports referring to these scientists as candidates to charge for Nobel Prizes, they were quickly dispelled as media hype and misunderstanding by relevant officials. For example, three of the first six scientists were in research areas that have no relevance to Nobel Prizes at all.
The real political issue is how to balance between talent trained overseas and talent trained domestically. In 2008, China initiated a “1,000 Talent” program aimed at attracting highly skilled Chinese living overseas to return to China. It was estimated that between 1978 and 2011, more than 2 million Chinese students went abroad to study and that only 36.5% of them returned. Although the 1,000 Talent program has been successful in attracting outstanding scholars back to China, it has also generated some unintended consequences.
As part of the recruitment package, the program will give each returnee a one million RMB (equivalent to $160,000) settlement payment. Many of them can also get special grants for research and a salary comparable to what they were paid overseas. This preferential treatment has generated some concern and resentment among those who were trained domestically. They have to compete hard for research grants, and their salaries are ridiculously low. In an Internet survey conducted in China by Yale University, many people expressed their support for the government to attract people to come back from overseas, but felt it was unfair to give people benefits based on where they were trained rather than on how they perform.
In response to these criticisms and concerns, the 10,000 Talent program was developed as a way to focus on domestically trained talent. Instead of going through a lengthy selection process, the program tried to integrate various existing talent programs run by various government agencies.
Although these programs might be useful in the short run, the best way to attract and keep talented people is to create an open, fair, and nurturing environment for people who love research, and to pay them adequately so that they can have a decent life. It is simple and doable in China now, and in the long run it will be much more effective than the 1,000 Talent and 10,000 Talent programs.
Professor and Dean
School of Public Policy and Management
The idea of China winning a Nobel Prize in science may seem like a stretch to many who understand the critical success factors that drive world-class research at the scientific frontier. Although new reforms in the science and technology (S&T) sector have been introduced since September 2012, the Chinese R&D system continues to be beset by many deep-seated organizational and management issues that need to be overcome if real progress is to be possible. Nonetheless, Junbo Yu’s article reminds us that sometimes there is more to the scientific endeavor than just the work of a select number of scientists toiling away in some well-equipped laboratory.
If we take into account the full array of drivers underlying China’s desire to have a native son win one of these prestigious prizes, we must place national will and determination at the top of the key factors that will determine Chinese success. Yu’s analysis helps remind us just how important national prestige and pride are as factors motivating the behavior of the People’s Republic of China’s leaders in terms of investment and the commitment of financial resources. At times, I wonder whether we here in the United States should pay a bit more deference to these normative imperatives. In a world where competition has become more intense and the asymmetries of the past are giving way to greater parity in many S&T fields, becoming excited about the idea of “winning” or forging a sense of “national purpose” may not be as distorted as perhaps suggested in the article. Too many Americans take for granted the nation’s continued dominance in scientific and technological affairs, when all of the signals are pointing in the opposite direction. In sports, we applaud the team that is able to muster the team spirit and determination to carve out a key victory. Why not in S&T?
That said, where the Chinese leadership may have gone astray in its some-what overheated enthusiasm for securing a Chinese Nobel Prize is its failure to recognize that globalization of the innovation process has made the so-called “scientific Lone Ranger” an obsolete idea. Most innovation efforts today are both transnational and collaborative in nature. China’s future success in terms of S&T advancement will be just as dependent on China’s ability to become a more collaborative nation as it will on its own home-grown efforts.
Certainly, strengthening indigenous innovation in China is an appropriate national objective, but as the landscape of global innovation continues to shift away from individual nation-states and more in the direction of cross-border, cross-functional networks of R&D cooperation, the path to the Nobel Prize for China may be in a different direction than China seems to have chosen. Remaining highly globally engaged and firmly embedded in the norms and values that drive successful collaborative outcomes will prove to be a faster path to the Nobel Prize for Chinese scientists than will working largely from a narrow national perspective. And it also may be the best path for raising the stature and enhancing the credibility of the current regime on the international stage.
Senior Adviser for China & Global Affairs
Foundation Professor of Contemporary
Arizona State University
Junbo Yu raises a number of interesting, but complex, questions about the current state of science, and science policy, in China. As a reflection of a broad cultural nationalism, many Chinese see the quest for Nobel Prizes in science and medicine as a worthy major national project. For a regime seeking to enhance legitimacy through appeals to nationalism, the use of policy tools by the Party/state to promote this quest is understandable. Although understandable, it may also be misguided. China has many bright, productive scientists who, in spite of the problems of China’s research culture noted by Yu, are capable of Nobel-quality work. They will be recognized with prizes sooner or later, but this will result from the qualities of mind and habit of individual researchers, not national strategy.
The focus on Nobel Prizes detracts from broader questions about scientific development in 21st century China involving tensions between principles of scientific universalism and the social and cultural “shaping” of science and technology in the Chinese setting. The rapid enhancement of China’s scientific and technological capabilities in recent years has occurred in a context where many of the internationally accepted norms of scientific practice have not always been observed. Nevertheless, through international benchmarking, serious science planning, centralized resource mobilization, the abundance of scientific labor available for research services, and other factors, much progress has been made by following a distinctive “Chinese way” of scientific and technological development. The sustainability of this Chinese way, however, is now at issue, as is its normative power for others
Over the past three decades, China has faced a challenge of ensuring that policy and institutional design are kept in phase with a rapidly changing innovation system. Overall, policy adjustments and institutional innovations have been quite successful in allowing China to pass through a series of catch-up stages. However, the challenge of moving beyond catch-up now looms large, especially with regard to the development of policies and institutions to support world class basic research, as Yu suggests. Misapprehension in the minds of political leaders and bureaucrats about the nature of research and innovation in the 21st century may also add to the challenge. The common conflation of “science” and “technology” in policy discourse, as seen in the Chinese term keji (best translated as “scitech”), is indicative. So too is the belief that scientific and technological development remains in essence a national project, mainly serving national political needs, including ultimately national pride and Party legitimacy, as Yu points out.
ALICE AYCOCK, Twister 12 feet (Park Avenue Paper Chase), Aluminum, 12′ high × 12′ diameter, Unique edition, 2014. The sculpture is currently installed at 66th Street on Park Avenue.
In 2006, China launched its 15-year “Medium to Long-Term Plan for Scientific and Technological Development” (MLP). Over the past year, the Ministry of Science and Technology has been conducting an extensive midterm evaluation of the Plan. At the same time, as recognized in the ambitious reform agenda of the new Xi Jingping government, the need for significant reforms in the nation’s innovation system, largely overlooked in 2006, have become more evident. There is thus a certain disconnect between the significant resource commitments entailed in the launching of the ambitious MLP and the reality that many of the institutions required for the successful implementation of the plan may not be suitable to the task. The fact that many of the policy assumptions about the role of government in the innovation system that prevailed in 2006 seemingly are not shared by the current government suggests that the politics of Chinese science involve much more than the Nobel Prize quest.
RICHARD P. (PETE) SUTTMEIER
Professor of Political Science, Emeritus
University of Oregon
Although it is intriguing in linking the production of a homegrown Nobel science laureate to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, Junbo Yu’s piece just recasts what I indicated 10 years ago. In a paper entitled “Chinese Science and the ‘Nobel Prize Complex’,” published in Minerva in 2004, I argued that China’s enthusiasm for a Nobel Prize in science since the turn of the century reflects the motivations of China’s political as well as scientific leadership. But “various measures have failed to bring home those who are of the calibre needed to win the Nobel Prize. Yet, unless this happens, it will be a serious blow to China’s political leadership. …So to win a ‘home-grown’ Nobel Prize becomes a face-saving gesture.” “This Nobel-driven enthusiasm has also become part of China’s resurgent nationalism, as with winning the right to host the Olympics,” an analogy also alluded to by Yu.
In a follow-up, “The Universal Values of Science and China’s Nobel Prize Pursuit,” forthcoming again in Minerva, I point out that in China, “science, including the pursuit of the Nobel Prize, is more a pragmatic means to achieve the ends of the political leadership—the national pride in this case—than an institution laden with values that govern its practices.”
As we know, in rewarding those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind,” the Nobel Prize in science embodies an appreciation and celebration of not merely breakthroughs, discoveries, and creativity, but a universal set of values that are shared and practiced by scientists regardless of nationality or culture.
These core values of truth-seeking, integrity, intellectual curiosity, the challenging of authority, and above all, freedom of inquiry are shared by scientists all over the world. It is recognition of these values that could lead to the findings that may one day land their finders a Nobel Prize.
China’s embrace of science dates back only to the May Fourth Demonstrations in 1919, when scholars, disillusioned with the direction of the new Chinese republic after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, called for a move away from traditional Chinese culture to Western ideals; or as they termed it, a rejection of Mr. Confucius and the acceptance of Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy.
However, these concepts of science and democracy differed markedly from those advocated in the West and were used primarily as vehicles to attack Confucianism. The science championed during the May Fourth move-ment was celebrated not for its Enlightenment values but for its pragmatism, its usefulness.
Francis Bacon’s maxim that “knowledge is power” ran right through Mao Zedong’s view of science after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Science and technology were considered as integral components of nation-building; leading academics contributed their knowledge for the sole purpose of modernizing industry, agriculture, and national defense.
The notion of saving the nation through science during the Nationalist regime has translated into current Communist government policies of “revitalizing the nation with science, technology, and education” and “strengthening the nation through talent.” A recent report by the innovation-promotion organization Nesta characterized China as “an absorptive state,” adding practical value to existing foreign technologies rather than creating new technologies of its own.
This materialistic emphasis reflects the use of science as a means to a political end to make China powerful and prosperous. Rather than arbitrarily picking possible Nobel Prize winners, the Chinese leadership would do well to apply the core values of science to the nurturing of its next generation of scientists. Only when it abandons cold-blooded pragmatism for a value-driven approach to science can it hope to win a coveted Nobel Prize and ascend to real superpower status.
Also, winning a Nobel Prize is completely different from winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Until the creation of an environment conducive to first-rate research and nurturing talent, which cannot be achieved through top-down planning, mobilization, and concentration of resources (the hall-marks of China’s state-sponsored sports program), this Nobel pursuit will continue to vex the Chinese for many years to come.
Associate Professor and Reader
School of Contemporary Chinese Studies
University of Nottingham