Forum – Fall 2008
The education people need
Brian Bosworth’s “The Crisis in Adult Education” (Issues, Summer 2008) could not be timelier for U.S. community colleges. As the nation’s current economic problems intensify, increasing numbers of adults are returning to community colleges to obtain education and training for living-wage jobs. They are often unprepared to perform college-level work, and these institutions are often unprepared to handle their concerns, in large part because of the issues Bosworth discusses. His suggestions for change are so logical that the reader is left with but one question: What is preventing change from happening?
Unfortunately, Bosworth does not take up this issue, but there are at least two major stumbling blocks. The first concerns the theory and practice of adult learning at the postsecondary level. Despite all the education theory and research conducted in the United States, there are precious few empirical examinations of successful ways in which adults learn. Indeed, most of the literature on remedial or developmental postsecondary education questions its current effective practice. There is some evidence to suggest that “contextual learning”—the embedding of basic adult-education skills in job training—works, but the jury is still out on whether the promising practices of a few boutique programs can be brought to the necessary scale.
The second obstacle concerns the separation of education and economic development. As long as postsecondary education continues to be viewed as an issue of access and finance for parents and their children, not as a strategy for economic development, most elected officials will continue to focus policy on traditional students. Rarely is educational policy seen as connected to economic growth and international competitiveness. Part of the reason for this has been the relative lack of corporate concern; the private sector has essentially been silent about the need for advanced educational opportunities for adults. Companies do their own training, or try to hire trained workers away from each other. This is a very inefficient, costly and, from a social viewpoint, ineffective strategy that does not produce the number of educated, highly skilled workers necessary for economic growth and prosperity. Some organizations, such as the Business Round-table, are beginning to advance this type of strategy, but it still is in the very beginning stages.
Finally, most of Bosworth’s recommendations call for changes in federal policies. U.S. education, including that at the postsecondary level, is primarily a local and state responsibility. Community colleges derive their main sources of revenue from tuition, state funds, and local property assessments, and they are governed by local boards. Policies affecting adult education and its connection to workforce development and the cost of that education to the student are generally products of state and local policies. The connection between these policies and adult learners also needs to be examined.
Still, Bosworth’s suggested changes are important and should be discussed by all committed to furthering the post-secondary needs of working adults. In that regard, he has made a major contribution to the field.
Unfortunately, our current system of adult education is ill-equipped to handle the millions of adults who need and must receive training in order to replace retiring baby boomers and allow us to meet this target. Each year this problem is compounded further by the influx of high-school dropouts (25% of each high-school class) as well as the large number of high-school students who do graduate but are unprepared for the rigors of college or the demands of work.
Significant progress can and must be made with adult students to address the educated workforce shortfall, while continuing work to improve the achievement and attainment of the traditional school-age population.
First and foremost, we must recognize that the current system of higher education, designed to serve the traditional, high-performing 18- or 19-year-old, simply does not work for the majority of our working adults. Our response has been to retrofit adult students into this model primarily through remedial instruction. Given that most adults attend part-time, this further delays and blurs the path to a college degree. It is not surprising that in a recent California study, fewer than one in six students completed a remedial class and a regular-credit class within one year. Regrettably too few adults achieve success, and those that do persevere typically take 7 to 10 years to attain a degree.
We need bold new approaches designed specifically for adult students that provide a clear and direct path to the degree they seek. Bosworth notes the excellent completion rates at the University of Phoenix, which enrolls more than 50,000 students nationwide and strategically designs programs around the lifestyles of working adults. Indiana Wesleyan University has achieved similar success with campuses across Indiana serving the working adult population. We need more of these accelerated, convenient, technology-enhanced programs designed with the purpose of guaranteeing degree attainment without sacrificing quality.
Equally important is addressing the pipeline of young adults aged 18 to 24 that continues to increase the percentage of our population with low educational attainment. In its recently adopted strategic plan for higher education, Indiana has proposed the development of an accelerated program, wherein students earn the credits to complete an associate’s degree in 10 months. This program will be appealing to students who do not want to forgo earnings for multiple years, and will have positive results, including increased persistence and attainment. The primary goal is to reach students before “life gets in the way” of their educational pursuits.
Successfully educating an underskilled adult workforce is an enormous task, but promises significant returns. It will take bold and new strategies to meet the challenge.
The first assumption is partly true because too many young people fail to complete high school and too many high-school graduates are poorly prepared for either college or the workplace. Narrowing the curriculum to more college-preparatory coursework and holding schools accountable may contribute to the dropout problem. Piling on more academics seems to have made little impact. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores for 17-year-olds have declined since 1984 despite a 45% increase in academic course-taking. NAEP science scores have declined substantially in the same period despite the doubling of science credits earned. NAEP math scores are relatively unchanged despite a doubling of math credits. These and other data argue for other ways of thinking about preparing tomorrow’s workforce.
Cappelli does an artful job of debunking the second assumption. This continued belief, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, is at the heart of school reform agendas, from the American Diploma Project to the U.S Department of Education. The recent report of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, for example, declared that “90% of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven economy will require some postsecondary education.” As Paul Barton at the Educational Testing Service notes, this false conclusion comes from a lack of understanding about basic data.
So how best to prepare our young people to succeed in the emerging labor market? The most obvious strategy is to focus on the technical and work-readiness skills employers need, especially those at the middle skill level where nearly half of all job growth is expected to occur, and to ensure access to those skills by today’s adolescents. This strategy requires that we expand, not reduce, high-school career-focused education and work-based learning, or Career and Technical Education (CTE). CTE has been shown to increase the likelihood that students will complete high school, increase the math skills of participants, and help young people focus on and complete postsecondary education and training. Yet current data from the Condition of Education (2007) show that the nation’s youth are taking substantially less CTE than in years past. An abundance of anecdotal evidence suggests that this is both a problem of access—fewer programs available in fewer schools—and opportunity—students have less time in the school day to access sustained occupational programming, as academic requirements continue to crowd out options for rigorous CTE.
High-quality CTE can improve the academic performance of America’s youth and the quality of America’s workforce, but only if robust programs are available to all young people who may benefit.
As we wrote about in Issues, Summer 2007, some two-year colleges do provide students with specific vocational and soft skills and link them to employers, although they do not do so generally or systematically. As Cappelli notes, instead of diffuse efforts at creating a “better-educated workforce,” policymakers should target their efforts at improving community colleges, focusing particularly on applied associates’ programs, soft skills, and problem-solving in practical contexts, and also on developing high-school career programs. Our college-for-all society and employers’ changing needs are transforming the meaning of a college education; our institutional organizations and policies need to respond.
For example, additional education in nutrition, hygiene, and biohazards improves individual and public health, benefiting the individual’s workplace and the country’s economy. Let’s look at smoke. A 2005 study estimated that secondhand cigarette smoke drains $10 billion from the national economy every year through medical costs and lost wages. Meanwhile, decades of anti-tobacco education efforts have been linked to fewer teens smoking and more young adults quitting. Simply put: Smoking costs billions; education reduces smoking; and when it does, the economy breathes more easily.
Although many similar threads can be followed, harder to trace are the ways in which education prepares an individual to inspire, innovate, cooperate, create, or lead. Employers want someone “who already knows how to do the job,” often an impractical hope; thus they look for someone who knows how to learn the job, a trait ultimately more valuable, as jobs change rapidly. Quality education fosters the capacity to study, to analyze, to question, to research, to discover. In short, to learn—and to accept, individually, the responsibility for learning how to learn.
As the author acknowledges, employers also want workers with conscientiousness, motivation, and social skills. Except for perhaps good families, good churches, and possibly the armed forces, no institution matches the ability of good schools to foster these qualities.
Work-based learning is also critical to ensuring a labor force sufficient in both numbers and knowledge; thus the California State University has hosted forums bringing faculty from its 23 campuses together with employers from critical economic sectors, such as agriculture, biotechnology, and engineering.
As it renders economic benefits to individuals and industries, education also transforms communities and societies. When universities view their mission through a prism of access and success, diversity and academic excellence, they foster social and economic upward mobility. Raising educational levels in East Los Angeles and other areas of high poverty and unemployment undoubtedly improves the economy by helping to break generational cycles of poverty.
Finally, the article does not address the costs of not educating an individual. In July 2008, California education officials reported that one in four high-school students in the state (and one in three in Los Angeles) drops out of school before graduating. What is the economic toll on society when it loses so many potentially brilliant contributors, as early as middle school, because of inequalities in access to quality education? Whatever it is, it is a toll our society cannot afford, economically or morally.
First, students and families must have adequate information about going to college, including real costs and aid availability. Too many students, especially those from historically underserved backgrounds, lack accurate information about postsecondary options. They are confused about actual tuition costs and expectations for academic work. The Lumina Foundation for Education, the Ad Council, and the America Council of Education are collaborating on KnowHow2GO, a public-awareness program to encourage low-income students in grades 8 to 10 and their families to take the necessary steps toward college (). Another effort is the nonprofit National College Access Network (NCAN), a federation of state and local efforts that provide counseling, advice, and financial assistance to students and families. Local initiatives, such as College Mentors for Kids! Inc., which brings together college and elementary-age students through their participation in campus and community activities, and Indiana’s Learn More Resource Center, are models for disseminating information about college.
Second, we must expand the scale and scope of demonstrably effective college-encouragement and transition programs. Particularly effective programs are the Parent Institute for Quality Education; the Puente Project; and GEAR UP, which provides information about financial aid, family support and counseling, and tutoring, among other things. Other promising encouragement initiatives include many of the TRIO programs funded under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, such as Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math/Science, Student Support Services, Talent Search, Educational Opportunity Center, and the McNair Program. For example, students in Upward Bound programs are four times more likely to earn an undergraduate degree than those not in the programs. Students in TRIO Support Services programs are more than twice as likely to remain in college as students from similar backgrounds who did not participate in the program ().
Preparing up to four-fifths of an age cohort for college-level work is a daunting, unprecedented task. The trajectory for academic success starts long before students enter high school. As Iowa State University professor Laura Rendon sagely observed, many students start dropping out of college in the third grade. Essential to breaking this unacceptable cycle is gaining the trust and support of parents and communities and ensuring that every student knows what is required to become college-ready and how to obtain the necessary financial resources to pursue postsecondary education.
Prison policy reform
In “Fixing the Parole System” (Issues, Summer 2008), Mark A. R. Kleiman and Angela Hawken correctly note that incarceration has become an overused and hugely expansive state activity during the past generation. Controlling for changes in population, the imprisonment rate in the United States has expanded fourfold in 35 years. Their rather modest proposal is to substitute intensive supervision and non-incarcerative sanctions for a system of parole monitoring and reincarceration in California that combines high cost and marginal public safety benefits.
There are three aspects of their program that deserve support:
- The shift from legalistic to harm-reduction goals for parole;
- The substitution of non-incarcerative for incarcerative sanctions for parole failure; and
- The use of rigorous experimental designs to evaluate the program they advocate.
There is clear public benefit in systematically stepping away from a practice that is simultaneously punitive, expensive, and ineffective.
Almost all responsible students of California crime and punishment support deconstruction of the state’s parole revocation juggernaut. But the brief that Kleiman and Hawken file on behalf of this penal reform is disappointing in two respects. Problem one is the rhetorical tone of their article. The authors intimate that risk monitoring and non-prison sanctions can lower crime rates, which would be very good news but is also unnecessary to the success of the program they support. If non-imprisonment parole monitoring produces no increase in serious crime at its smaller correctional cost, that will vindicate the reform. Reformers shouldn’t have to promise to cure crime to unwind the punitive excesses of 2008. And the proponents of reform should not have to sound like they are running for sheriff to sell modest reforms!
My second problem with the case that is presented for community-based intensive supervision and non-prison sanctions is its modesty. The authors suggest a non-prison program only for those already released from prison. But why not create such programs at the front end of the prison system as well, where diversion from two- and three-year imprisonment terms might be even more cost-effective than a parole reform if non-incarcerative programs have roughly equivalent outcomes? Is reducing California’s prison expenses from $9 billion to $8 billion per year the best we can hope for?
Citing the Hawaii experiments, Kleiman and Hawken would rely heavily on the behavior change benefits of certain, swift, and consistent punishment for violations that now go undetected or are inconsistently punished. They cite the research literature on the importance of behavior change that is reinforced by rewards for appropriate behaviors but suggest that political opposition may limit the opportunities on that side of the ledger. In my view, the role of positive reinforcement and incentives must be significantly expanded in post-release supervision to really affect long-term recidivism. Released convicts have enormous needs, including housing, medical care, job training, etc. A properly resourced parole or probation officer could reinforce and promote a lot of good behavior by getting the parolee/probationer what he really needs to succeed as well as holding him accountable for his slips.
The burden of post-release supervision is made even heavier by the flood of prisoners who arrive totally unprepared to resume civil life. Their addictions—the underlying cause of most incarcerations—and other physical and mental illnesses have not been treated; they have no job experience or training; and their overcrowded prisons have created social norms of racial gangs and violence. Many, if not most, prisoners emerge in worse shape and less able to function in civil society than when they entered. The treatment of many criminals is itself criminal. I really wonder if California will be less safe if a judge orders thousands of prisoners released before they get poisoned by the prison environment and experience. I am confident that competent post-release supervision and support will produce a better result than we get now by leaving people to rot in prison; and at significantly lower cost.
The current weakness of parole systems around the country is an ironic unintended consequence of long mandatory sentences without possibility of parole. In many states, politicians thought it would be fine to let the parole systems wither because people completing mandatory sentences wouldn’t be subject to parole. The result we now see compounds the stupidity of the long mandatory sentences themselves.
Thinking about energy
Senator Jeff Bingaman is right (“Strategies for Today’s Energy Challenge,” (Issues, Summer 2008). The key to addressing climate change and future energy supplies is technology. We’ll need new energy technologies and new ways of using traditional energy technologies to build the energy and environmental future Americans want. Government will influence what that future looks like, but consumers and private companies will also play integral roles.
U.S. oil and natural gas companies strongly support new technologies. They have invested more in carbon-mitigation technologies than either the government or the rest of the private sector combined—about $42 billion from 2000 to 2006, or 45% of an estimated $94 billion spent by the nation as a whole. They are involved in every significant alternative energy technology, from biofuels to wind power to solar power to geothermal to advanced batteries. They created the technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground.
As demand for alternative energy increases, oil and gas companies will be among the firms that meet that demand. However, they are also prepared to provide the oil and natural gas that Americans are likely to need for decades to come. Although our energy landscape will change, oil and natural gas will still provide substantial amounts of transportation fuels, energy for power generation, and petrochemicals, lubricants, and other products. As fuels, they’ll be cleaner and used more efficiently. We’re already seeing this in new formulations of gasoline and diesel fuel, in combined heat and power technology in our refineries, in advances in internal combustion engines, and in hybrid vehicles.
The future will be as much energy evolution as energy revolution. We’ll need all forms of energy—new, traditional, and reinvented—with each finding its place according to consumer needs and environmental requirements. In the end, providing the energy we need while also advancing our environmental goals will be a formidable balancing act. Government policies that can best help achieve these objectives will be those built on a shared vision; stakeholder collaboration among government, industry, and consumers; and a reliance on free markets.
Look around at what we are forgetting and puzzle over what Bingaman says. We developed shoes for solar-powered walking, but few walk. We developed safe nuclear power plants, then stopped building them. We developed glass that lets in light and sun centuries ago, yet our buildings need electric lights in the middle of the day. And there are more methods being forgotten that avoid fossil fuels: the bicycle, the clothes-line, passive heating and cooling, and solar water heaters.
What are the “concrete goals, road maps, timelines” he is after? “The time has come for government to act,“ but he has no idea what to do. Like many, Bingaman is under a spell, off balance, blind to what is around him, and seeking unborn machines and larger bank accounts.
First, there must be a greater focus on the deployment of new technology. Three of the seven components of the plan—plug-in hybrid commercialization and making solar power as well as biofuel alternatives cost-competitive—are reliant only in part on technological breakthroughs. Equally important, if not more so, are smart deployment strategies. We must work with entrepreneurs to develop revolutionary business models that will rapidly transform our vehicle fleets.
One initiative that aims to spur such innovation is the Freedom Prize (www.freedomprize.org). I am excited to be an adviser to this new organization, which will distribute monetary prizes to cutting-edge transformational initiatives in industry, schools, government, the military, and communities. An example of a revolutionary model is Project Better Place, launched by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi. I recently had the pleasure of hearing him talk firsthand about his big idea, which Thomas L. Friedman described in a recent column in the New York Times (July 27, 2008):
“Agassi’s plan, backed by Israel’s government, is to create a complete electric car ‘system’ that will work much like a mobile-phone service ‘system,’ only customers sign up for so many monthly miles, instead of minutes. Every subscriber will get a car, a battery and access to a national network of recharging outlets all across Israel—as well as garages that will swap your dead battery for a fresh one whenever needed.”
Time will tell if it will work, in Israel or elsewhere. Regardless, it is exactly the kind of thinking we need. Technological breakthroughs are necessary but insufficient; they must be complemented by expedited deployment strategies.
The truly indispensable complements to crash research programs and big carrots for innovation are technology-neutral performance standards and mandatory programs to limit global-warming pollution. Such policy was debated by the U.S. Senate this year: the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (CSA).
An analysis commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that the CSA would have dramatically cut pollution while slashing oil imports by 6.4 million barrels a day in 2025 (down to 1986 levels). This is in part due to Senator Alexander’s success in adding a national low-carbon fuel standard to the bill, which would lower the carbon intensity of fuels, making alternatives such as plug-in hybrids and advanced biofuels more competitive. That’s the kind of policy that would move us forward, and fast.
In sum, building the bridge to a low-carbon secure future requires an array of carrot and stick programs that expedite technological development and deployment. I look forward to working with Senator Alexander to speed us into that better world.
What is science policy?
Irwin Feller and Susan Cozzens, both nationally recognized science policy scholars, have hit the nail on the head with their appropriately scathing critique of U.S. science policy entitled “It’s About More Than Money” (Issues, Summer 2008). The only thing they didn’t do was drive the nail in far enough to seal the fate of this critical area of national policy that remains wholly unsophisticated, unchanging, and inadequate to the task of providing our nation with the tools we need to make best use of our national R&D investment.
Here it is 2008, when we have the ability to analyze and quantify even everyday things such as the impact of soft drink advertising during the Super Bowl, but we can’t yet develop a national science and technology logic that goes beyond “we need more money.” We live in an era when the production of science-based knowledge, at everincreasing rates, is driving changes in economic competitiveness, culture, quality of life, foreign and military affairs, and sustainability on a global scale, and yet we have a science policy that is no more robust than most families apply to their family budgets: We have so many dollars this year and we would like more next year. Feller and Cozzens attack the central sophomoric argument of U.S. science policy, which has its roots in the original designs of Vannevar Bush and his piece Science—The Endless Frontier, published in the wake of the total victory of the Allies and the unconditional surrender of their enemies in World War II. What they don’t address is why we have been unable to grow up from our simple approach of largely unguided national science planning and budgeting.
It was in fact the simplistic correlation between our very successful efforts to develop new weapons during the war and our ultimate total victory that led to the genesis of a very simplistic model for science policy. This model works something like this: Science is good, more money for science is good, if you fund it more, good things (like winning the war against two opponents at the same time) will happen. We never got past this level of logic. Simple logic always sticks around for a long time, in the same way that lots of outmoded stereotypes do, such as just let science guide itself, as it can’t be guided.
This logic is so simple and so beneficiary to most of the stakeholders in the science policy realm that even the president’s science advisor hasn’t been able to make a change in the basic model after six years of effort. We fund our national science efforts on the premise that our success is measured in the investment itself and not its outcomes. This logic has actually kept us from building an outcomes-oriented national science policy, and as a result has put America’s well-being at risk.
When your policy success is measured by the budget inputs and not on goal attainment or outcome achievement or national performance, then we literally have no idea what we are doing or why. Our present rhetoric is that we need to spend more on science and this will make America greater. Or that we need more scientists or engineers to be stronger. Although these facts may be true, we don’t have empirical evidence of that, and more important, even if we did, we would need to be able to answer the question of whether our investments are helping us to reach the outcomes we most desire.
Most Americans seek a better life for their families; most want to have access to a safe, clean everything; and most want their children to have access to higher qualities of life. At the moment, we have very few tools in the science policy realm that could make any assessment of the relationship between science investments and these outcomes. This is very unfortunate and needs to be addressed.
Addressing it means that we must reject the notion that science policy is about money. It is about who and what we want to be and do. It is about attacking our most critical challenges and knowing where we are along the way. It is about having some dreams that we hope for and understanding that these investments are our means to achieve these dreams and holding people accountable for progress toward them.
It’s about a lot more than money, and Feller and Cozzens help us to see that.
Although Feller and Cozzens note that one of the problems with current policy and research on policy is that it is too narrowly framed, they discuss policy research only in terms of evaluating science policy. What about the other side of the coin: research to improve science policy? As I’ve argued elsewhere, if one of the goals of our research is to improve science (and technology) policy, we must design our research with improved policy as an outcome. From a systems perspective, this research process would necessarily include key stakeholders such as policymakers in at least the design and communication phases, with feedback loops from such stakeholders to the research team. The identification of gaps in knowledge, possible consequences of success and failure of contemplated policies, and possible unintended consequences would all be part of a systems analysis framing policy-relevant research.
A systems analysis including policymakers clearly won’t solve the current dialogue gap between the policy and research communities. But we must begin a serious effort to work together for more effective policy-relevant research and policymaking. Not all researchers or policymakers would choose to be part of such an effort, but many from both groups, at the federal and state levels, have already demonstrated their interest through participation in such communication efforts, usually on specific topics.
On a more minor point, but perhaps typifying at least some of the examples used in the article, Feller and Cozzens point to one of the action outcomes identified in the National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: the call for recruiting 10,000 new science and mathematics teachers. They suggest that this call overlooks “the impressive data base of human resource surveys,” analyses of science and technology career patterns, and the government level responsible for education. In fact, this call was based on a rigorous state-level study of these factors in concrete cases such as Texas and California, and was extrapolated conservatively to states conducting similar studies at the time of the report. There has been excellent uptake of this call by more states subsequently (Arizona, North Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa, and Indiana, among others). The National Academies hosted national symposia in 2007 and 2008 focused on the federal/state/local relationship essential to meeting the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education challenge.
In their four-page article, Feller and Cozzens manage to draw in most of the recent reports and commentaries relating to Presidential Science Adviser John Marburger’s call for a new science of science policy. And their overall point seems exactly right: that “a much broader approach” than has currently been taken is needed. Although I have no doubt about their capacity to map an outstanding broader approach, this brief article didn’t take us there, or even point us there.
Many see the glass as half empty (not half full) when they contemplate the “knowns” that make up the evidence-based platform for science and innovation policy. This area of research and practice is not new to academics or policymakers; there are decades-old questions that we currently contemplate; problem sets that continue to be imperfectly answered by experts from varied disciplines and fields. In addition, the anxious call for or anticipation of better conceptualizations, models, tools, data sets, and metrics is not unique to the United States but is shared among countries at different levels of economic development. The marriage of ideas from an interdisciplinary and international community of practice is already emerging to advance this scientific basis of science policy. Diversity of thought and experiences no doubt lead Irwin Feller and Susan Cozzens to encourage the cause but strongly caution the process by which frontier methods are developed and utilized. An “increased dialogue between the policy and research communities”—and I would add here the business community—is paramount.
As the glass fills, therefore, so will the frequency and complexity of this dialogue. For instance, the management of risks and expectations is common practice in business and increasingly common in designing potent science and innovation policy mechanisms. Opportunities exist, therefore, for breakthroughs in finance and economics with applications to funding portfolios of science. But, it’s about more than the money. Understanding the multifunctional organism that facilitates creative invention and innovation requires the synthesis of network analysis, systems dynamics, and the social psychology of team networks. Add to that downstream linkages to outcomes data that can be harvested using modern scientometric or Web-scraping techniques. This complex research activity could add clarity to our understanding of the types of organizations that pass new ideas on to commercial products most effectively.
Another question often overlooked in the literature is the management of short-term and long-term expectations. The portfolio approach to the science of science and innovation policy could yield a full spectrum of analytical tools that satisfy short-term requirements while accomplishing long-term goals. These are topics that are ripe for frontier research and yet still have practical applications in the policy arena.
Often the question is asked, what should government’s role be in science and innovation policy? Although there is much controversy about incentives that try to pick winners, returns from tax incentives, and regulatory reform, many would agree that facilitating information exchange could yield important positive social dividends. Already, public funding has been used to sponsor research on the science of science and innovation policy and workshops and forums where academics, policymakers, and representatives from the business community exchange ideas. Partnerships among these three stakeholders are expected to be productive, yet as with many scientific endeavors, time is an important variable.
Science and democracy
In “Research Funding via Direct Democracy: Is It Good for Science?” (Issues, Summer 2008), Donna Gerardi Riordan provides a timely, cogent case study of the “be careful what you wish for” brand of risk-taking that comes with merging science funding with populist politics. The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Bond Act of 2004 (Proposition 71) is probably not, in toto, good for science. The ends (more funding) can not justify the means (hype masquerading as hope). No good comes when science sacrifices honesty for expediency.
Beyond doubt, the language used to sell Proposition 71 promises more than science can hope to deliver. What is hard to understand is what made many of the parties involved say some of the things that were said. One can understand the anguish motivating those who have or whose loved ones have untreatable illnesses to bet on the promises of embryonic stem cell research, particularly when federal funds are limited. This new area of biology deserves to be explored, even if the ultimate aims of such research remain unproven and unpredictable at this time. Indeed, the United States has a rich history of private dollars, dispersed by individuals, charities, and voluntary health organizations, funding controversial and unpopular research that the federal government cannot or will not support. Economic development and higher-education infrastructure are traditional investments for state coffers. But Proposition 71 seems a horse of a different color. Riordan’s analysis of it rightly focuses our attention on an important question: Is it a good thing that a deliberate decision was made to circumvent the usual processes by which sciences gets funded and states decide investment priorities?
Those of us who care about letting the democratic process work should ask, is Proposition 71 good for public policy? Concocting a public referendum on a complicated issue fraught with scientific, ethical, legal, and social controversies should not be celebrated (nor misinterpreted) as giving people a voice. It is, rather, an example of the few pushing an agenda on the many, bypassing the representative legislative process. Such initiatives are not intended to stimulate debate. The intent, rather, is to shut down the healthy messiness of public debate. The legislative process can be inconvenient, inefficient, and often requires compromise. Given the forced choice of Proposition 71, a majority of the citizens of California, believing money could accelerate the alchemic process whereby basic research yields medical treatments, voted to cure diabetes and defeat Alzheimer’s. They voted for fairness—they wanted life-saving cures derived from “stem cells” (arguably two words that without other modifiers have little biologic or therapeutic meaning) to be accessible and available to all, including the economically disadvantaged. The citizens of California were not asked, at least not in the flyers, billboards, and advertisements, to decide on investing $3 billion in a life-sciences economic stimulus package primarily benefiting University of California research universities and biotechnology companies. They might have been willing to fund such an investment. But they weren’t given the option. What serious problems would California citizens chose to solve in a decade with $3 billion to spend? We don’t know. The powerful few who knew what it was that they wanted didn’t stop to ask them.
California’s referendum mechanism does indeed introduce some wrinkles into the process of funding and governing science. Riordan focuses on the consequences of insulating the program from conventional state legislative and executive processes. Insulating stem cell research from mainstream politics was understandable, however, because of a foreseeable political problem. The opposition was strongly motivated and managed to delay funding for several years through court battles despite the insulation. Fighting this out in the legislature would surely have been contentious, although perhaps eventually reaching more or less the same outcome (but only perhaps).
A previous California health research program, the Tobacco-Related Diseases Research Program (TRDRP), also built in insulation from legislative and gubernatorial politics. TRDRP was created by another referendum, Proposition 25, which increased cigarette taxes and dedicated some of the proceeds to research. The research program was clearly specified in the constitutional amendment but was nonetheless blocked at several turns by the governor and the speaker of the State Assembly, challenges resolved only by the California Supreme Court. TRDRP was immensely valuable to tobacco control research, for years the largest program in the country, surpassing federal funding (sound familiar?). It laid a foundation for tobacco control research nationally and internationally. It mattered, and but for its built-in protections, it clearly would have been scuttled by conventional politics.
The common element of stem cell and tobacco control research is determined opposition, and so there is a plain political explanation for why the insulating provisions were built into the propositions. That does not take away from the consequences of following the referendum route that Riordan so aptly describes.
Attention may now turn to the serious coordination problem that follows from state research programs. How will these integrate with federal funding and with other states and other nations? This may well be tested in embryonic stem cell research if the federal brakes come off next spring, regardless of which party wins the presidency. Should Congress and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) race to match California, Massachusetts, Hong Kong, Israel, Korea, and other jurisdictions that have generously funded stem cell research? NIH merit review awards funds according to scientific opportunity and health need. The need for federal funding is arguably reduced in scientific areas where states and other countries have stepped in. Or is it? The NIH has no clear mechanism to take such funding into account. Pluralism is one of the virtues of U.S. science funding. But too much uncoordinated funding can leave some fields awash in money while others starve. With several independent state-based funding programs, California’s being the largest, the coordination problem will be unprecedented in scale and intensity.