Editor’s Journal: Straight Talk

Which of the following does not belong? a) firebrands b) visionaries c) opinion leaders d) S&T policy wonks

Unfortunately, the answer is obvious. Let’s face it: Most of what’s written in S&T policy discussions does not captivate the public imagination. Remember Michael Dukakis? He was the guy who was laughed out of the 1992 presidential race for saying that he enjoyed reading some of this stuff. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being serious, measured, and deliberate. Most of us are glad that public policy stays on the safe side of the frivolous or Dionysian. But doesn’t it get a little boring, even for committed policy wonks? And wouldn’t it be nice once in a while to grab the interest of a reader who does not already have a stake in the subject? Admit it.

Issues has taken pride in publishing practical, well-documented, and sensible articles about important subjects. We’ve tried to find distinctive voices with far-reaching ideas, but we’ve also asked authors to write articles of at least 2,500 words so that they can adequately explain and document their analyses. During editing, we ask for examples, data, logic, and political realism. This is not a recipe for innovation, speculation, or excitement. It’s a high-fiber, low-cholesterol intellectual diet.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing that a little spice or an appetizer can’t fix. We would like to expand our menu by inviting authors to submit articles for a new section entitled “Straight Talk.” These should be short pieces of about 1,000 words that introduce fresh but undeveloped ideas, share doubts about the conventional wisdom, give voice to the personal or idiosyncratic. Consider them outtakes from the committee discussions that lead to National Research Council reports. They should aim to stimulate and surprise rather than convince and reassure.

The progress of science and technology is marked throughout by the assault of bold ideas and wild-eyed notions that sometimes become conventional wisdom. Such leaps of imagination are far less common in the history of public policy. Political turmoil is rarely as productive as scientific upheaval, but shouldn’t we expect the already cliched “accelerating rate of change in science and technology” to lead to some dramatic changes in the ways that we think about S&T policy?

Perhaps it has. The problem may be simply that Issues hasn’t had the good sense to publish these new ideas. Let’s see if this invitation attracts a flood of creative thinking. We should expect plenty of bad ideas, or at least ideas that most of us think are bad. Straight Talk is to be a place for the interesting, not the popular.

Keep in mind the advice often given to entrepreneurs: If you share an idea for a new product or service with your friends and they all agree that it’s a great idea, forget it because someone else is already doing it. But if everyone says that you’re nuts, you at least have a chance of being first to the market with something truly innovative. Let Straight Talk be a test market. The investment is small, and everyone will understand that this is a place for playing with ideas. Give it a try.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Editor’s Journal: Straight Talk.” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 4 (Summer 1997).

Vol. XIII, No. 4, Summer 1997