Forum

Manufacturing’s loss, Trump’s gain

Most people in the Washington, DC, trade establishment see the current political backlash driving Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as a result of nativism, ignorance, or simply the whining of those hurt by trade. For them to consider the alternative—that these citizens may be on to something legitimate—is to challenge the core foundations of what can be labeled the “Washington Consensus” on globalization. As Stephen Ezell and I wrote in our book Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage, most in the trade policy establishment share a view about trade that is grounded in at least five core beliefs: 1) the United States is the world’s economic leader because it is the most open, entrepreneurial, and market-driven economy; 2) trade is an unalloyed good for the United States, even if other nations engage in “innovation mercantilism;” 3) mercantilist nations hurt only themselves; 4) the US’s role in the global economy is to be a shining “city on the hill” that, by force of example rather than prosecution, shows misguided nations why mercantilism is bad; and 5) because there is no optimal industrial structure, the nation not only does not need, but should actively avoid, a national manufacturing policy.

In their dogged defense of trade, holders of the Consensus go to great pains to deny that US manufacturing has declined because of trade, because they know that to admit this, cracks begin to form in their position. This is why William B. Bonvillian’s article, “Donald Trump’s Voters and the Decline of American Manufacturing” (Issues, Summer 2016), is so important. Bonvillian rightly points out that many of Trump’s supporters are working class whites who have been hurt by trade. But as Bonvillian also points out, because so many nations have systematically manipulated the trading system for mercantilist advantage, and because the United States has failed to put in place an innovation-based manufacturing agenda, US manufacturing, and the US economy, has been hurt. In other words, the story is more complicated than the holders of the Consensus want us to believe.

In fact, these holders continue to stridently defend the fundamentally wrong story that virtually all of the loss of US manufacturing jobs has been due to higher productivity, not trade deficits, because they know that if they admit that the nation has lost manufacturing because of trade, then maybe not all is right with the government’s trade policy. But as research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has shown, and as Bonvillian argues, the United States has, in fact, lost considerable manufacturing output and jobs to other nations, and not just in so-called low-tech sectors.

Holders of the Consensus see the choice as between “free trade” and protectionism. But Bonvillian rightly points out that the real choice is between the current system of weak trade enforcement coupled with a laissez-faire domestic policy when it comes to manufacturing, and a new system that embraces rules-based globalization grounded in tough and energetic enforcement against systemic and rampant innovation mercantilism combined with a coherent domestic national manufacturing strategy grounded in innovation. If the holders of the Washington Consensus want to avoid a new era of protectionist isolationism, they better embrace the framework Bonvillian lays out pretty quickly.

Robert Atkinson

President

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

Washington, DC

Too much democracy?

Political sentiments among professional observers (e.g., “Voting is not democratic”) and the public are shifting phenomena. At times, the shift is akin to a dramatic quake. Recall the famous promise of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in his 1969 state of the nation address before the German Parliament in Bonn: “Let’s dare more democracy” (“Wir wollen mehr Demokratie wagen”).

Willy Brandt expressed a sentiment very much in line with the spirit of that age; the student rebellion in many societies and the widespread public protests against the Vietnam War were illustrated and inspired by democratic sentiment. Today, however, we are more likely to encounter expressions about the democratic political order—not only among (would be) dictators—but more generally. In the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, for example, we hear that there is “too much democracy.” We hear that a rational nation ruled by science would not be such a terrible idea. Such opposition to democratic governance is often cited, too, in response to the consequences of climate change. As Daniel Bell already postulated as part of his theory of post-industrial society, the political problems of such a society are essentially elements of science policy rather policy matters in the ordinary sense.

As Colin Macilwain documents very well in “Science and Democracy” (Issues, Summer 2016), despair about democracy is expressed in manifold utterances of scientists, who attempt to resurrect an idea that, we hoped, had been buried years ago. Prominent in the 1970’s, the idea that the virtue of technocratic rule by experts is the solution to whatever ails modern societies, is once again reappearing. The economist Daniel Kahneman is but one prominent new voice expressing extreme skepticism about the capacity of existing political arrangements and the world-views of the public as conducive to coping with the fallout of climate change.

Perhaps even more realistic as a threat to democracy than the attitudes and the behavior of members of the scientific community toward the public is the increasing growth of social inequality and the rentier-class in many societies that lives off the rent procured by its ownership of capital assets, independent of any labor. The beliefs of the elite of the scientific community perhaps are also driven by what Friedrich Hayek detected among his fellow scholars, namely as science advances, it tends to strengthen the conviction that we ought to aim at more deliberate and comprehensive control of all human activities.

The dangers for the scientific community in neglecting the public and its world views are, however, significant. For, rather than a greater role and reach of science in policy making, what could very well happen is exactly the opposite. What is to prevent the shift from directing society to a much closer scrutiny, to controlling the scientific community? A new political field, knowledge politics, would not promote science, but attempt to control, or even outlaw, new scientific discoveries before entry into society.

The political order of a society that is convinced that its real pattern of inequalities is based on merit and is just, rather than on claims to advanced knowledge, is in serious trouble once leadership should fall on the shoulders of those claiming superior knowledge. Scientific rationality, at times, has nothing do with democratic rationality. Democratic rationality requires its own set of instructions.

Nico Stehr

Karl-Mannheim Chair of Cultural Studies

Founding director, European Center for Sustainability Research

Zeppelin University

Friedrichshafen, Germany

I am appalled that you felt Colin Macilwain’s article on science and democracy merited publication. It purports to be about how the scientific community’s lack of engagement with the public is contributing to the current political situation in the United States. However, it provides no support for that opinion and identifies nothing about how he believes the scientific community ought to engage with the public. Instead, the article is filled with anecdotes and pejorative messaging on a variety of unrelated issues (such as those conflating trickle-down economics, the 2008 financial crises, and government funding of research). It is reminiscent of what Michael Douglas’s character said in the movie The American President: “whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, [my opponent] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

I do have to acknowledge that Macilwain’s writings are an excellent example of what has worked so effectively in public engagement recently—that is, extrapolating anecdotal information and using it to villainize—and would be quite appealing to the “insurgent forces, on the left or right” that he feels scientists should engage with more. Good show. But with regard to his complaint that a Trump presidency is tantamount to “democracy [getting] ridden over a cliff” and that scientists would be partly to blame, it is far more plausible that a democratically elected Trump would be a result of antiestablishment public opinion biased by articles such as his.

It is also surprising that someone who is indignant about “increasingly arrogant…public pronouncements” is so confident that his own suppositions and anecdotal observations are representative of the multifaceted scientific community at large. In my own experience, Macilwain’s pejorative references to people “squabbl[ing] haplessly among themselves, each maneuvering into whichever position most elevates them in the eyes of their aristocratic paymaster” and “lazy [people] who crawl around after…elites, massaging their egos, defending their interests, and happy with the [money] thrown their way” are likely to apply to a much greater extent outside the scientific community than within it. Though I am shocked—shocked—to hear that in public forums, scientists sometimes kowtow toward those who put the food on their tables.

It would be worrisome indeed if scientific information that ran contrary to the establishment were muzzled; however, it is patently obvious that it isn’t, as even the most cursory search of the internet or social media will show. In fact, it is far more fashionable for people to write provocative pieces that critique the establishment.

There are valid criticisms that can be made about communication, biases associated with funding, recognition of scientific and technical limitations, and the justification of government funding, but they deserve a much better discussion than what Macilwain provides. In fact, this journal has published a number of better examples in recent years. I would also like to recommend Daniel Sarewitz’s Frontiers of Illusion as an excellent book that provides a less politicized discussion of these points.

Todd Tamura

Petaluma, California

Medical crises

In “Civil Society’s Role in a Public Health Crisis” (Issues, Summer 2016), Jay Walker powerfully argues how the increased connectedness of the world, coupled with the growing significance of five “superforces,” threatens to overwhelm social order, policy makers, and public health officials in the event of a future pandemic. As one of the people assembled by Walker at the TEDMED 2015 session discussed in the article, I support his analysis and his recommendations for the vital steps needed to make the world safer.

I would amplify on Walker’s points with two additional considerations. First, although he is right to warn that a future public health crisis could see health systems and communities overwhelmed by massive miscommunication and misinformation, spread rapidly by social media and new technology, we should not forget that the immediate challenge is a lack of communication and lack of information in the places where epidemics are most likely to occur. Yes, the Ebola outbreak in the United States in the fall of 2014 had many of the elements of hyper-communication that Walker describes. But the response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was plagued by a deficit of communications, including an inability to educate the public about safe burial practices in regions without radio stations or other mass communication, an inability to pursue contract tracing in large areas where no cell service existed, and an inability to perform laboratory tests in communities cut off by poor roads and infrastructure. For the foreseeable future, epidemic threats are more likely to emerge from under-connected regions rather than over-connected ones.

Second, although I strongly endorse Walker’s proposal for a volunteer corps of experts to respond to outbreaks and support governments in mitigating the next pandemic, it also will be necessary to strengthen governmental and public-sector response mechanisms, which provide the first and last lines of defense. Reform of the World Health Organization must be pursued with relentless focus and determination. Plans to create an “African CDC,” modeled on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are vital. A “white helmet” battalion mustered by the European Union to provide a mix of medical and security support in an epidemic must be resourced robustly. And in the United States, bipartisan proposals for a federal Public Health Emergency Fund (and an epidemic response authority for the president on par with the current authorities to respond to other “natural disasters”) should be passed and generously funded. Civil society plays a crucial role in epidemic response, and that role can be increased. But government alone can provide critical services that are a necessary platform without which civil society cannot stand.

Readers within and outside of the science community should take Walker’s words of warning to heart: it is only a question of when, not if, the day of global reckoning with a pandemic will come. As he says, we must strengthen the ability of civil society to help respond to that challenge, and to tap the unique talents and resources of civil society to save lives when the crisis comes.

Ronald A. Klain

White House Ebola Response Coordinator, 2014­–15

This is a very important article by a thoughtful and worried citizen. No ordinary citizen, Jay Walker is curator of TEDMED, founder of Priceline, and holder of several hundred patents. He has agonized for years over the threat of the next pandemic caused by some bug jumping species, and this article is his best explanation of how we should reframe our thinking.

Social media, webizens, civil society, and public health workers need to pay attention to Walker’s prophetic voice about how the tools of modernity may either amplify or blunt the biological effects of a pandemic to humanity’s benefit or peril. Epidemiology must stretch the envelope to include mastery and understanding of the forces Walker articulately describes if we are to keep the world as safe and healthy as possible when the next Zika or Ebola or Swine Flu or SARs hits.

Larry Brilliant

Mill Valley, California

Author of Sometimes Brilliant, a memoir about working to eradicate smallpox

Pricing an ecosystem

In “Putting a Price on Ecosystem Services” (Issues, Summer 2016), R. David Simpson does an excellent job of articulating some of the limitations to using economic valuations as the basis for decisions about preserving and protecting ecosystems. Clearly, there are some situations in which quantitative benefit-cost assessment is an appropriate way to frame and consider how to manage natural systems. At the same time, recent decades have witnessed a growing application of quantitative anthropocentric framings to ever wider aspects of environmental decision making. This philosophical perspective is certainly not new.

The King James Version of the Bible instructs humans to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” In what some observers argue is a more accurate rendering of the original Hebrew, the New International Version reads “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Over the centuries, many have interpreted this Judeo-Christian mandate to “subdue” and “rule” as basically saying that nature exists solely for the benefit of humans. That is very much the framing adopted when the preservation of nature is valued solely in terms of people’s willingness to pay or in terms of quantitative measures of “ecosystem services.”

The past 150 years have witnessed growing numbers of dissenting voices. Writing in 1875, John Muir challenged “the enormous conceit” of the doctrine that “the world was made especially for the uses of men.” Ninety years later, Rachel Carson argued: “The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” And in 2015, Pope Francis argued that Christians have misinterpreted scripture and “must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

Today, most people in the United States, including all but the most doctrinaire economists, share the view that there are limits to a strictly anthropocentric framing. The challenge now is to better articulate a philosophical framework for judging where those limits should lie; work to create a broadly shared social consensus about those limits; and develop norms that give decision makers more space to adopt decision rules that, when appropriate, go beyond quantitative anthropocentric benefit-cost analysis.

M. Granger Morgan

Hamerschlag University Professor

Department of Engineering and Public Policy

Carnegie Mellon University

In this article, R. David Simpson asks “What is driving the interest in ecosystem services?” Why has the language of ecosystem services become “standard jargon for environmental policy makers?”

As Simpson correctly observes, the ecosystem services bandwagon is not riding on the old Malthusian rails. Overpopulation, resource depletion, and mass starvation are so fin de siècle. Ecosystem collapse has also come and gone. As Simpson points out, the ecosystem services gestalt does not give people Malthusian fantods. But it also affronts the “conservation-for-conservation’s-sake ethic,” as Simpson says. So it is not driven by left-wing environmental ideology; indeed, it resists both Malthusianism and deep ecology.

It is not driven by right-wing free market ideology, either. The idea of using scientistic calculations to shore up regulations would not bowl over anyone at the Chamber of Commerce.

The idea of pricing ecosystem services is also infra dig in many academic circles. An effort to “value” anything outside markets is not consistent with received economic theory, and Simpson explains why.

So what is driving the interest in ecosystem services, given that it lacks both ideological bandwidth and disciplinary cred?

A Community on Ecosystem Services holds a biennial conference that (according to its program) extends over five days and includes “15 pre-conference workshops, six plenary sessions, 14 town halls, as well as hundreds of oral presentations and posters.” These posters and presentations bear out what Simpson observes: They do not ventilate on how ecosystem services “are essential to our very existence or that we have a fundamental moral obligation to preserve the habitats that provide them,” nor do they edify (not as much as you would expect, anyway) on the abstract theoretical foundations of the methodology. On the contrary, attention is paid to “the practical, and often local, value of ecosystems—on services such as pollination, pollution treatment, flood protection, and groundwater recharge.”

In this context, ecosystem services jargon provides a lingua franca—perhaps no more than a façon de parler—in which conservationists and industrialists can talk to each other without being limited by ideological or scientistic constraints. Both the left and the right—both environmentalists and industrialists—are equally able to manipulate this language; this draws them into playing the same language game. Because the pricing of ecosystems services is so open to manipulation, the extreme left (the Malthusians and the deep ecologists) and the extreme right (those who oppose any regulation outside of common law) are tempted to develop relevant language skills. This means they can be caught other than dead at the same conference.

So again, what is driving the interest in ecosystem services? The language of ecosystem services allows both environmentalists and industrialists—the left and the right—to coopt or, failing that, to tamp down their ideological fringes so that they can make sense to each other. The interest in ecosystem services is driven by centrism, incrementalism, rationalism, statism, moderation, and willingness to compromise. It may succeed, however absurdly.

Mark Sagoff

Professor of Philosophy

Senior Fellow, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy

George Mason University

Energy efficiency

In “The Potential of More Efficient Buildings” (Issues, Summer 2016), Henry Kelly makes a critical and well-articulated case for a comprehensive research agenda for building energy efficiency. Building on this foundation, I would like to emphasize the potential of data analytics and the critical role of cities in achieving a more energy-efficient future.

Reducing energy use and lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the urban built environment has emerged as one of the primary grand challenges facing society in the twenty-first century. Cities have been at the forefront of policy innovation to address climate change mitigation and long-term sustainability, as buildings account for the vast majority of energy use and carbon emissions. New York City has established an aggressive mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 80% by 2050, primarily from its existing building stock. Other cities in the United States and internationally have adopted similar goals, including Austin, Boston, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Tokyo.

As part of these efforts, the proliferation of city energy use disclosure laws (such as Local Law 84 in New York City) represents one of the most promising public policy tools to accelerate market transformation around building energy efficiency. Research has shown that similar disclosure requirements in other industries, such as fuel efficiency in the auto sector and nutrition labels for food served by chain restaurants, have led to changes in behavior by both producers/suppliers and consumers/end-users.

It is important to emphasize that building efficiency is not just a technological problem, but a behavioral one. In many cases, the technology currently exists to achieve energy use reductions of up to 50% in buildings. Despite numerous initiatives to deploy proven technologies over the past several decades, persistent information asymmetries derived from an inability to measure and benchmark key sustainability indicators continue to constrain investor decision making and to limit capital market responses that could significantly lower the cost of capital for energy improvements and dramatically shift the calculus of building energy efficiency. Programs such as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star label and the Green Building Council’s LEED rating system have raised market awareness for individual buildings, but are not sufficient to reach the significant reduction targets being set at the city scale.

To achieve these goals, new data-driven methodologies are needed to identify and target efficiency opportunities at the building, neighborhood, and city scale. The emergence of large data streams from an array of policy initiatives and sensor deployments now enables researchers and policy makers to characterize the energy usage of buildings across building types, neighborhood socioeconomic and demographic conditions, and urban form and morphology. Greater access to, and reliability of, information can lead to shifts in market demand by creating competitive markets around energy efficiency and, potentially, water, waste, and other resource efficiencies. In fact, these non-energy quality-of-life measures represent a significant new frontier for research in urban energy systems.

Harnessing, integrating, and interpreting these urban data streams to address the societal challenge of improving energy efficiency will require an interdisciplinary effort that combines innovative analytical and modeling methods from engineering, data science, social science, and urban planning, elevating the place of social and behavioral sciences in the study of energy dynamics. It will necessitate a coordinated data collection and analysis effort that bridges the public, private, and academic sectors, across federal, state, and local jurisdictions, while shifting the focus from individual building systems to the dynamic interplay of social, economic, and political phenomena.

Constantine E. Kontokosta

Assistant Professor of Urban Informatics

Center for Urban Science and Progress

New York University

I fully support Henry Kelly’s promotion of new and more advanced building energy technologies as a means to improve building performance and reduce energy use and related carbon emissions. However, to fully realize these aims, we cannot rely on advancements in building technology alone.

For one thing, only a fraction of a building’s total energy use is related to the efficiency of the technology within it; the remainder is a function of the operations-related management practices and the behavior of the people who use the building (although technology can be used to help in these areas, too). Furthermore, as Kelly acknowledges, deep reductions to energy use and carbon emissions cannot be achieved by focusing only on new technology for new buildings. Existing buildings have to be contended with. It is estimated that about half of the world’s building stock in 2050 will consist of buildings that already exist today; for cities such as New York and London, the share made up by the existing building stock is even higher (75% and 80%, respectively).

What’s needed, then, is for building energy technology to complement other related policies and initiatives to reduce building-related energy use and carbon emissions. There is one solution in particular that is as promising as it is simple: data transparency. Mandatory disclosure of building performance data is a relatively new practice that requires owners of large properties, often commercial and multifamily residential buildings, to publicly disclose key environmental data, such as carbon emissions and energy and water use. Disclosure programs have been (or are in the process of being) implemented in dozens of jurisdictions across Europe, Australia, and North America, including in such cities as New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington, DC.

Jurisdictions that have implemented mandatory benchmarking policies have reported energy savings and subsequent financial benefits in a relatively short time. Early research conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that requiring owners to disclose their building’s energy performance alone can lead to energy savings of 7% over four years. In the first three years that New York City implemented its Local Law 84, which requires owners of large buildings to disclose energy and water performance, the median commercial building energy use intensity was reduced by approximately 10%. Building owners are also required to complete energy audits and undergo retro-commissioning every five to 10 years to help achieve these savings.

There are other environmental and financial benefits of mandatory public disclosure of building performance. It provides building owners and managers with an effective and consistent measure of their building’s performance and enables them to see how they rank compared with other similar buildings, thereby offering a benchmark for setting performance targets. In addition, utilities and service providers can use the data collected to create and tailor more effective energy conservation programs, policies, and incentives. As more energy data becomes available, it becomes easier to identify which buildings (and which building types) are underperforming. Energy conservation programs can then specifically target these buildings, making the task of improving their performance more manageable. To complement their building performance disclosure programs, some cities have created engaging and data-rich visualization and mapping tools available for free online. Notable examples include Philadelphia’s Energy Benchmarking map (http://visualization.phillybuildingbenchmarking.com/) and New York City’s Energy & Water Performance Map (http://benchmarking.cityofnewyork.us/). Most importantly, disclosure of building performance data allows the market to introduce mechanisms that value environmental efficiency in purchasing, leasing, and lending decisions.

Although I agree with Kelly’s conclusion that “building energy technologies are among the most important and intellectually exciting technology challenges facing the world today,” I would go even one step further: some of the most intellectually exciting challenges facing the world today are provided by the built environment as a whole.

Mark Bessoudo

Research Manager (Sustainability & Energy)

WSP Canada Inc.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Eugenics warning

In “The History of Eugenics” (Issues, Spring 2016), Daniel J. Kevles rightly reminds us that many biotechnologies initially viewed as Frankensteinian, such as in vitro fertilization, eventually become commonplace. Whether or not CRISPR/Cas9 will follow an analogous path of routinization remains to be seen, and will depend on complex issues of cost, feasibility, safety, accessibility, and social acceptability. To date, the ethical brakes on human germline modification have slowed but not stopped the process. Much like the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, CRISPR/Cas9 has sparked a strong current of optimism about the promise of genomics to ameliorate and possibly eliminate certain diseases. But what are the potential ugly undersides of such advances?

The eugenic past can be a useful compass when considering present and future uses of genetic technologies. The lessons are clear-cut when it comes to the overreach of governments, including the implementation of policies that compelled individuals to relinquish their reproductive autonomy. Compulsory sterilization laws, which were passed in 32 states from 1907 to 1937, and resulted in more than 60,000 reproductive surgeries, overwhelmingly performed on poor, undereducated, and minority women and men, epitomize this egregious facet of eugenics.

Human germline modification seems quite distant from the coercive practices that enacted discrimination against socially vulnerable groups based on ostensible genetic inferiority. But tethering definitions of eugenics too closely to the state can obfuscate the extent to which presumptions of fitness and unfitness can insinuate themselves into broader social value systems.

Responding to Kevles’s interest in the increasing commercialization of biomedicine, we might ask how lessons from government-driven eugenics can be applied to the ethical quandaries associated with twenty-first century genetic and reproductive technologies, many of which arise as for-profit biomedical ventures. On one hand, when most couples incorporate genetic selection into their reproductive journey—via in vitro fertilization or preimplantation genetic diagnosis—these choices can be filed under the categories of personal privacy and reproductive rights. However, when genetic selection is approached from the perspective of disability rights and awareness, the slope becomes much slipperier and continuities between the past and present more visible.

The past few years have witnessed the dramatic growth of non-invasive prenatal screening, which allows fetal cells in the maternal blood, extracted through a simple blood draw, to be screened for chromosomal anomalies such as trisomy 21 or 13. Unlike the development of amniocentesis in the 1970s, which was built on partnerships between federal health agencies and academic medical centers, non-invasive prenatal screening entered the clinical domain as a commercial product, marketed by a small number of rivaling biotech companies. Disability studies scholars have criticized how glossy advertisements for Sequenom’s MaterniT21 PLUS include only fair-skinned, picture-perfect babies, reinforcing the presumption that unfit babies, those with physical or intellectual disabilities, are undesirable humans. A 2015 scientific study estimates that from 1974 to 2007, pregnancy terminations based on trisomy 21 diagnosis (made using amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling) reduced the population of individuals living with Down syndrome in the United States by approximately 30%.

If we want to ensure that history does not repeat itself, then we need to recognize how people with disabilities experienced discrimination based on eugenic ideas of human worth and contemplate how such prejudices might manifest themselves in contemporary public policy and medical marketing.

Alexandra Minna Stern

Professor of American Culture, Women’s Studies, History, and Obstetrics and Gynecology

University of Michigan

Future of space

In “Reshaping Space Policies to Meet Global Trends” (Issues, Summer 2016), Bhavya Lal provides an insightful and comprehensive view of the changing landscape of space. The article is drawn from the findings of a report produced by Lal and her colleagues at the Science and Technology Policy Institute for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). It outlines both the opportunities and challenges afforded by a myriad of traditional and new space actors—including those privately funded and dubbed NewSpace, as well as domestic and foreign government agencies heretofore at best peripherally involved with space activity—who are offering products, services, and capabilities previously afforded to only a few nations.

Following her appraisal of this changing landscape, Lal offers three policy options to US agencies involved in space activities: “They can accept the trends as inevitable, get ahead of them, and pre-position the nation to benefit from them. They can actively fight the trends, by attempting to reverse the situation by starving the emerging private sector to keep the government as the key hub in the space ecosystem. Or they can drift, doing nothing at all, and react on a one-off basis to the trends that immediately affect a particular agency.”

I suspect that NASA would be eager to pursue option No 1. Having the private sector take over some of the space activities it has been charged with by default over the years would free up NASA money to pursue new, or already approved but underfunded, programs. Other agencies, however, including ODNI and those primarily concerned with security issues, might be less accepting. And therein lies the rub.

Consequent to the 2013 Chinese suborbital launch that nearly reached geosynchronous orbit where many US exquisite-class satellites owned by the intelligence and military communities reside, those communities began to see the “sanctuary” of this space region jeopardized. The security communities conducted a Strategic Space Portfolio Review in 2014 and talk of the inevitability of space war, space control, and the US needing to dominate space ramped up to the level of the George W. Bush years. It is important to note that other space players, those Lal suggests are going to be key in the future, were not included in that review. If the security communities accepted the reality of the changing space landscaping that Lal describes so well, they would have been. But there are forces of inertia and vested interests within the security-related communities that keep them mired in the status quo.

Space is, indeed, “congested, contested, and competitive,” as Lal references. NASA, other government agencies, and the private sector are interested in managing the congested (more stuff) and competitive (more actors) aspects, with competition sometimes even driving innovation. But the security communities are focused—almost exclusively—on the contested (development of counterspace capabilities by other countries) aspect of the space environment. Whereas strategic restraint had been the policy intended to deal with that issue, it now appears discarded in favor of returning to the eternal and unreachable quest for “control.”

But it is not just the United States that can favor the security aspects of space over the development, exploration, and commerce aspects. Europe is increasing its military space spending. China and India are pursuing across-the-board space security capabilities. Russia intermittently plays the spoiler in United Nation-led efforts to agree on voluntary best-practice guidelines toward maintaining the long-term sustainability of the space environment. For real change to occur, all spacefaring nations need to prioritize inclusive diplomacy over chest-thumping military “control” efforts.

It is heartening that ODNI commissioned the study by Lal and her colleagues. ODNI, and its Pentagon cohorts, need to read it carefully and, as Lal suggests, get ahead of the curve rather than trying to turn back time.

Joan Johnson-Freese

Providence, Rhode Island

Author of the forthcoming book Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens

I enjoyed Bhavya Lal’s article on US space policy. However, I was struck by two omissions, which are related and, in my view, will have fundamental implications for space policy making moving forward in the United States and elsewhere.

The first omission is explicit observation of the fact that the primary impetus for space research and development is no longer military. As a result of this shift, there has been an increase in unilateral private participation and international collaboration in the space sector (and before that, the increase in contracting-out during the shuttle program). The second omission is the high probability that increased unilateral private-sector participation and international collaboration will mean a shift in US space policy from a predominantly distributive function to a predominantly regulatory function, just as occurred with the de-militarization of the Internet.

This said, some key problem areas for space policy makers moving forward may include one or more of the following: how space itself is used by private companies, who these companies’ clientele are, how foreign companies and governments use space, how space services can be made safe for workers and customers, and how property rights (intellectual and otherwise) will be distributed across international and multi-economic sectors and multi-industry space endeavors.

Craig Boardman

CenterScience

Atlanta, Georgia

Chemical safety

Beth Rosenberg’s sorry tale related in “Seventeen Months on the Chemical Safety Board” (Issues, Summer 2016) raises a lot of questions about how society regulates potentially dangerous industries, what it means to believe in a democratic process, and the impact of politics and power in regulatory and investigative agencies of government. At one level, this is a tale all too familiar: a plant blows up, people are killed and hurt, investigations are done, fingers are pointed, explanations are given. There are calls for reform—do this and it won’t happen again, adopt these protocols and we can lessen the likelihood of mayhem. At the very least, we might expect the best from the experts. In the case recounted by Rosenberg, things didn’t happen the way they should.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has a professional staff and a mandate to investigate incidents and disasters in the petrochemical industry—a whole slew of chemists, public health professionals, engineers, and safety specialists who work under the direction of the board, which comprises presidentially appointed and representative members. What could possibly go wrong? As Rosenberg points out in this case: a lot. The CSB can only recommend, enforcement agencies (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency) have way too few inspectors, punishments and fines are often symbolic or puny, and the industry is critical to the economy and politically powerful. Even given this, the initial response by the CSB to the Chevron explosion at the heart of Rosenberg’s tale was wrong and wrongheaded. Why? Because something was rotten at the CSB. Its advocacy of the “safety case” as a solution to the problems confronting the aging plants and poor management in petrochemicals paid little attention to the true causes of the problem and effectively ignored calls for greater oversight or community input. Despite the objections by Rosenberg and others to this approach, this is what the CSB initially proposed. Changing that hit all manner of obstacles.

For years, the literature of regulatory agencies has stressed that such agencies end up being captured by the constituents they are supposed to regulate. Companies get to be pals of the regulators; understandings are arrived at; regulations and protections for workers, consumers, and the public are weakened. But at the CSB something else was going on. The CSB became captured by its own culture and interests, the staff (particularly senior staff) more dedicated to maintaining their jobs and reputations than doing the right thing, and the continued existence of the CSB was more important than truth or action. It was compounded by a failure of leadership, lack of democracy at the uppermost level of the board, and political maneuvering that ensured critical voices were silenced.

The lesson? Society needs to pay more attention to the politics of organizations within federal agencies. These issues deserve renewed study. We need a better understanding of what the political scientist Graham Allison has called bureaucratic politics—that is, how cultures develop in agencies, what values are promoted (or not), how where you sit becomes more important than where you stand.

If the nation wants to have safer industries and to protect workers and communities, we need good regulations, strongly enforced. Of course, this means the support of Congress—bigger budgets for more inspectors, and fines and punishments for transgressions that actually hurt. It needs open discussion involving workers and the community and creative approaches to understanding all aspects of what leads to explosions, fires, and disasters.

But what this tale of the CSB also shows is that we should turn our attention to the politics of bureaucracy and the way power and culture develop in places such as the CSB. We need to understand how agencies can capture themselves. This is more than calling for greater public accountability; it is, as Rosenberg notes, a call for a staff culture that puts public service before private interest, leadership that is committed to fairness and integrity, and training and more training to ensure that scientists and professionals understand their public responsibility.

John Wooding

Professor, Department of Political Science

University of Massachusetts, Lowell

I work in the chemical manufacturing industry. Our companies manage a great deal of risk in the production of the goods we sell. External checks and inputs on our operations in the interest of public safety and health are necessities of doing business. Nevertheless, an adversarial tension will always exist in the relationships between the industry and regulatory agencies. Thus, it is vitally important that all stakeholders view as unimpeachably objective any independent government body that is charged with investigating and analyzing the root causes of significant petrochemical accidents and making recommendations for future prevention to not only regulators, but also to industry, unions, state, and local governments. In this, the CSB faces problems.

Compared with the National Transportation Safety Board, the CSB has struggled throughout its relatively short history to achieve the same degree of credibility. It has never been adequately funded. And it has rarely been able to get along with itself. Internal conflicts and disagreements between board members and chairs date back to 2000 when, to settle an internal power dispute, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had to issue a ruling (known as the “Moss Opinion”) clarifying the roles, responsibilities, and boundaries between the chair and the members of the board. Thirteen years later, the CSB found itself going back down the path of poor leadership and management dysfunction, as Rosenberg clearly describes.

The problem with political appointments is that they are, well, political. Rosenberg calls for a more effective process for identifying and vetting leaders and preparing new board members for their roles. This is much needed reform, but a crapshoot to implement when ideology is allowed to trump knowledge and leadership experience in the public servant selection process. The nation got lucky with Rosenberg, who demonstrated integrity, courage, and personal sacrifice for public service at a time when it was greatly needed.

Scott Vincent

Butler, Pennsylvania

The nation has too often seen the toll that explosions, leaks, and other accidents within the petrochemical industry have taken on the health, safety, and livelihoods of workers, first responders, neighboring communities, and, at times, the industry itself. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 150 catastrophic accidents occur each year in regulated industrial facilities. Less severe accidents occur regularly; in just the little more than two years between April 2013, with the explosion at a West Texas fertilizer facility that killed 15 people, and August 2015, 425 chemical accidents were reported to the EPA. Others likely went unreported.

Rosenberg has provided an accessible, candid, and thoughtful chronicle of her service at the CSB, a small but important arm of the government’s efforts to protect people working in and living near petrochemical facilities. She efficiently summarizes the context, systems, and landscape in which the CSB—and other health and safety organizations—operate.

As a government body with no regulatory authority, the CSB has the mission and authority to investigate root causes of accidents in the petrochemical industry and make evidence-based recommendations to the full range of stakeholders that are in a position to take some action that might prevent similar situations in the future. “Root cause” is the important operative phrase here. As Rosenberg eloquently points out, this may go well beyond a technical issue and reach to a failure of or flaw in the facility’s management structures, practices, and communications.

Given the size of the petrochemical industry, its workforce, geographic spread, and the sheer potential for significant harm, the CSB has a challenging enough job, given its small budget and staff. It may be an agency that is under the radar screen for most people, but it has unique reach and deserves broad support.

The immense rewards of public service, along with its many challenges, are well known to people who have dedicated their time and talent to working on behalf of the public interest within government agencies. Rosenberg highlights her experience with internal politics, staff and board relationships, and a work environment that she believes hampered her effectiveness and the effectiveness of the agency to fulfill its mission. But her commentary offers more than an inside look at the challenges she and others faced at the CSB. She offers insights and suggestions that cannot only enhance the functioning of the CSB, but help to better prepare the scientists entering public service at the federal agencies whom we rely on to protect our health, safety, and environment.

Kathleen Rest

Executive Director, Union of Concerned Scientists

Former Acting Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Celebrity science

In March 2014, Toronto Public Health launched a social media campaign to pressure the popular ABC daytime television talk show, The View, into firing outspoken US celebrity Jenny McCarthy as one of its hosts. Health experts worried that McCarthy’s strident anti-vaccine views would influence Canadian parents nervous about vaccination and undermine the efforts of medical officials to increase vaccine uptake at a time when preventable diseases have been making a comeback.

McCarthy isn’t the only celebrity to publicly espouse views at odds with mainstream science. In the vaccine wars, we also have Jim Carrey and Bill Maher; on homeopathy and new ageism, there’s Oprah Winfrey; Gwyneth Paltrow has the cleansing market cornered; and the increasingly fraught world of activism opposing genetically modified organisms is occupied by a range of stars, including Michael J. Fox, Gisele Bundchen, and Neil Young.

In “Science, Celebrities, and Public Engagement” (Issues, Summer 2016), Timothy Caulfield and Declan Fahy explore the mixed influence of celebrity culture on the public’s understanding of science and the potential benefits of celebrity engagement for science policy, literacy, and communication. Do celebrities influence what citizens believe about science? If so, how can these effects be determined and measured? Can celebrity influence be mobilized to advance a pro-science agenda? These are important empirical, normative, and strategic questions.

The authors’ observation that celebrities have achieved a state of pervasive cultural influence is consistent with decades of critical social science research. Yet, most academic observers, echoing the arguments of mainstream cultural critics, are often too quick to dismiss contemporary celebrity culture as thin, vacuous, and fleeting (as opposed to some make-believe bygone era when public discourse was deep, durable, and robust). For many observers, the celebrity embodies the artifice of contemporary pop culture, while celebrity power is linked to the decline of modernity and its faith in reason, knowledge, and expertise. As the Toronto Public Health campaign suggests, celebrities may also pose a clear and present danger to the public’s health.

Caulfield and Fahy present a more complicated picture. They acknowledge the worrisome effects that celebrities can have on our health. Yet, elements of the argument are also measured and pragmatic. They decry and mock the influence of some celebrities, but point to examples of others who have made important contributions to public science and health literacy. Gwyneth Paltrow (about whom Caulfield has written extensively) can be ridiculed for her goofy advice to women about diet and sexual health, yet the normalization of popular discourse about HIV and AIDS, particularly among men, could not have occurred without the determined advocacy of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. They also discuss examples of scientists (e.g., Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Suzuki) who have fashioned themselves into media stars with celebrity-like appeal of their own. The boundaries between celebrity and science are thus becoming increasingly blurred, and Caulfield and Fahy capture this fuzziness well.

The British cultural theorist Raymond Williams famously remarked that “we live in an expanding culture, yet we spend much of our energy regretting the fact, rather than seeking to understand its nature and conditions.” Like Williams, Caulfield and Fahy suggest that celebrity culture is better viewed as a phenomenon to be examined and understood than as a problem at which we should sneer (sneering, after all, doesn’t make what is there go away). Their call for more research into the nature and impact of celebrity culture on public understanding of science is important if we are to better know how citizens make sense of complex scientific and public health issues in our increasingly media-saturated environment. Although this requires attention to the influence of celebrities on science and health, it must also include examining the myriad ways in which celebrity media culture is transforming science and science communication.

Josh Greenberg

Director, School of Journalism and Communication

Carleton University

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Politics of the platform economy

Not so long ago, the study of economics was referred to as “political economy.” The term bore the recognition among scholars that economic behavior and activity could not be studied without consideration of the political context. It was understood that politics and economics shaped each other in intricate ways, and that choices in one area influence choices in the other. Subsequently, however, the economics profession chose the pathway of methodological individualism, and the study of economic behavior became mostly dissociated from consideration of politics.

In “The Rise of the Platform Economy” (Issues, Spring 2016), Martin Kenney and John Zysman remind us that political economy never really went away. And, the emerging economic reality of platform economies that they describe is closely connected to political choices. In particular, the choices that citizens, policy makers, and business leaders make about technological change, risk, benefits, and costs will affect the economic activity that occurs under the auspices of the platform economy.

The authors specifically highlight social policy, for example. In adjusting to platform economy effects, different countries will make different political choices about the relationship between social protection and economic dynamism. If greater individual initiative and more entrepreneurship is expected as result of the platform economy, what evolving role should social policy play?

There is evidence that enhancing social protections (e.g., unemployment insurance, family and medical leave, health care, food stamps) can actually raise the level and quality of entrepreneurship. Research has found such effects across different countries. How will the United States, Europe, and other regions make political decisions about social policy and economic dynamism? The answer will shape the effects of the platform economy.

Competition policy is another area in which politics will be critical for determining what the platform economy ultimately looks like and how it affects economic activity. Decisions about where to draw regulatory lines, how to even define those lines, and how to balance different types of competition are inherently political.

The political fight over the platform economy is already occurring—mostly at the local level where firms such as Uber and Airbnb often act as if they are somehow post-political businesses. Google and Facebook, too, are often treated as beyond politics. Criticism of the European Union’s antitrust approach to Google, for example, focuses not on the political economy question of Google’s competitive stance, but rather on shortcomings of European economies in that they did not produce a company as wonderful as Google. Of course, in the case of Uber, these firms are intensely political and often erect competitive barriers around themselves.

As a result, the political debate on the platform economy is sometimes framed as new versus old, disruptors versus incumbents, with one prima facie better than the other. Framing the debate as what it really is—a political choice, a question of the distribution of costs and benefits—might be unrealistic, but could be more fruitful in resolving the issues raised by Kenney and Zysman.

This is not to suggest that the platform economy is wholly negative. There will undoubtedly be positive effects from the rise of the platform economy. The nature of those positive effects—and how they balance the negative implications—is entirely a political question.

Dane Stangler

Vice President, Research & Policy

Kauffman Foundation

Cite this Article

“Forum.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 1 (Fall 2016).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Fall 2016