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Scientists, Policymakers, Academics Discuss
Possible New MacArthur Funded Security Center
Against the backdrop of concern about proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and future terrorist attacks, a group of scientists, foundation officials and policy makers met at AAAS last week to discuss the proposed formation of a "Center for Science and Security." The Center would help to build bridges between policymakers and university researchers in a major new initiative in international peace and security funded by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
"We must move technical and scientific knowledge promptly and effectively into the policy process," said Jonathan D. Fanton, president of The MacArthur Foundation.
Speakers at the workshop, organized by AAAS under a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, focused on the growing need for scientific and technological guidance to help federal policymakers and their staff to design legislation based on solid scientific principles, and to understand the impact of their decisions.
"The threat to international peace and security posed by weapons of mass destruction is as great today as it ever was in the Cold War," said Al Teich, director of the AAAS Directorate for Science and Policy Programs, which organized the workshop. "Yet our scientific and technical capabilities for dealing with the challenges of arms control and international security have declined significantly since the days of the Cold War."
The first day of the workshop included a discussion from a former senate staffer about the best way to communicate scientific information to policymakers, and two talks on past government efforts to establish science advisory bodies.
"The meeting was intended to put to work AAAS's experience in facilitating communication between scientists and policymakers in building connections between the programs supported by the MacArthur Foundation and policymakers in Congress and the Executive Branch," Teich said, discussing the impact of the meeting as it drew to a close. "The Foundation is seeking to strengthen university-based programs in science and security and their influence on policy."
Lessons from Other Organizations
Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists discussed the current state of science policy and spoke of what a new center could learn from the experence of the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Criticized for being too slow and too subjective in its analyses, the agency lost its funding in 1995, after 21 years of reporting on substantive issues, such as dangers to the ozone, and the effectiveness of anti-ballistic missile defense.
Nonetheless, Kelly spoke highly of the OTA, and suggested that a Center for Science and Security should emulate the agency for its "superb" and bi-partisan staff, its financial independence, and its crisp and effective style in communicating with journalists.
"In its final throes, the OTA delivered one-page press releases that could be read on the subways," Kelly said.
Chris Chyba, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, noted that there are several barriers to effective communication between policymakers and scientists. Government officials believe that scientists lack a real-world perspective, said Chyba. He added that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has lost much of its influence in security policy, and that the new Center could learn from the office's mistakes.
If the Center's staff produces reports, for example, recommendations should be well balanced and policy recommendations should follow, not lead the technical material. He summarized the role of the proposed Center with an analogy of a visit to a doctor's office: "When you go to a physician, you don't expect a full diagnosis on the spot, but you do expect that (eventually) he or she will be able to pin down the cause for your ailment."
23 April 2003
For more information, read How to Become a Personal Contact for Congress: Suggestions from a former staffer.