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Science Policy Needs a “Team B” – Part I

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The wonderful “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money” statement attributed to Senator Everett Dirksen may be apocryphal, but it remains a prescient warning to our nation’s leaders. At a time when Congress is throwing billions of dollars around like pocket change based on claims of scientists and engineers, a real quote of Dirksen may be equally important (Congressional Record: June 16, 1965, p. 13884):

One time in the House of Representatives [a colleague] told me a story about a proposition that a teacher put to a boy. He said, ‘Johnny, a cat fell in a well 100 feet deep. Suppose that cat climbed up 1 foot and then fell back 2 feet. How long would it take the cat to get out of the well?
Johnny worked assiduously with his slate and slate pencil for quite a while, and then when the teacher came down and said, ‘How are you getting along?’ Johnny said, ‘Teacher, if you give me another slate and a couple of slate pencils, I am pretty sure that in the next 30 minutes I can land that cat in hell.

The nation needs Johnny. In fact, it may be time we hired a team of people like Johnny for every large science-based policy proposal Congress contemplates funding.
Carbon Capture and Storage: A Known Boondoggle
Consider, for example, the $4.4 billion Congress is putting into carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) research, nearly half of that to come from the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill. As Robert Bryce points out in the New York Times, “That’s a lot of money for a technology whose adoption faces three potentially insurmountable hurdles: it greatly reduces the output of power plants; pipeline capacity to move the newly captured carbon dioxide is woefully insufficient; and the volume of waste material is staggering.”
Those of us familiar with the coal-fired power plant industry have long recognized that CCS may be slightly more than a pipe-dream, but will never be affordable or practicable for the vast majority of coal-fired plants. Yet no one in the bureaucracy has had the courage to stand up and refute this politically correct but scientifically bankrupt concept.
Lessons from a Broken Hockey Stick
Nor is CCS the only example. Perhaps the highest visibility science that needed a “Johnny” was the now infamous global warming hockey stick. Andrew Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion – Climategate and the Corruption of Science deconstructs the woeful practices leading to this canard that propelled the entire world toward economic investments that are likely to be entirely wasted.
In his book, Montford identifies individuals within the paleoclimatology community who argued that they would not have used the invalid data upon which the hockey stick depended. But, they did not come forward, nor were they allowed to “peer review” the work before its publication. And why was that?
It took an act of Congress to find a “Johnny” to sort out the hockey stick and explain why no one came forward. The resultant Wegman report concluded, among many other important things:

The politicization of academic scholarly work leads to confusing public debates. Scholarly papers published in peer reviewed journals are considered the archival record of research. There is usually no requirement to archive supplemental material such as code and data. Consequently, the supplementary material for academic work is often poorly documented and archived and is not sufficiently robust to withstand intense public debate [or allow for replication of the research]. In the present example there was too much reliance on peer review, which seemed not to be sufficiently independent.

And Wegman recommended:

Especially when massive amounts of public monies and human lives are at stake, academic work should have a more intense level of scrutiny and review. It is especially the case that authors of policy-related documents like the IPCC report, Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, should not be the same people as those that constructed the academic papers.

Having independent peer review is not a new idea. In 2005, Steven Hayward suggested “Perhaps the time has come to consider competition as the means of checking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s monopoly and generating more reliable climate science.”
The Heartland Institute made such an attempt with its Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change report and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Climate has mounted an effort to continue this work. But these efforts have failed to produce a meaningful impact on the political process, largely because the authors do not operate within the “peer” community and do not publish in the peer-reviewed literature.
There are better models, however, and these could be adapted to science-based policy analyses. For example, by federal law, an investment prospectus must include sufficient specification of risk assumptions as to permit independent analysis of the proposal. In like measure, financial institutions’ annual reports require independent audit analysis before publication.
The key is independent replication of the analysis and evaluation of important assumptions, but that, alone, is not enough. In the second part of this comment we take up a proposal to use the “Team B” approach.

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