December 24th, 2008

Of course it’s the few of us who grumbled that Barack Obama was slow to fulfil his promise to bring back serious science advice who complain when he finally does so.

As Mark says, it’s a gratifyingly high-level and credible team. He’s also right to ask where the social scientists are. The Obama administration is committed to domestic social engineering on a huge scale, and a paradigm shift in foreign policy from hard to soft power: really only social science can give you useful advice on the pitfalls and opportunities. The subdiscipline of science policy research – my daughter’s field at Sussex - is itself a field of social science: physics can’t tell you how much money should sensibly be spent on particle accelerators as opposed to telescopes.

Administratively the gap can still be fixed. The current mandate of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is vague and doesn’t define “science policy”. This can mean, narrowly, policy on science education, research and innovation; or broadly, the whole relationship between government and the advancement of learning. I’d cast the net wide. It’s intellectually artificial to split “hard” from “soft” knowledge, and technical from social innovation. If you’re going to have a top-level egghead talking shop, why narrow it down from the start? Don’t you need historians, linguists, and anthropologists?

So widen the mandate and appoint some working social and behavioural scientists: Krugman, Stiglitz, Pinker, people like that. And why not some foreigners: say Tim Berners-Lee.

Which brings me to Dr Scrooge’s second beef.

Obama’s presentation, apart from the fine biblical touch, was couched in terms of a rather passé flag-waving mercantilism of American “leadership”. (I’m sensitive to this trope as it’s an unfortunate staple of post-imperial British political discourse; “catching up with Finland”, the real and approachable target in most fields, is not thought of as saleable.) Americans did invent the first-generation, e-mail Internet: what people think of first today, the Web and HTML, were of course invented by Berners-Lee at CERN in, or rather under, Geneva. And the Human Genome Project – a fine example of pure, useless science – would have been inconceivable without the work of the British Quaker geneticist Frederick Sanger – a wellcome (joke not typo) exception in character to the general pattern of alpha-male egotists in the field (Crick, Watson, Venter).

The rebalancing of the world’s scientific and technological efforts away from the United States has been inevitable and generally a good thing. It’s a proper objective of US and other national policies to try to preserve comparative advantages in technology where they exist – say in microprocessors and software – but there are no technological monopolies any more. In science, good policy should recognize that the endeavour is inherently global. More than that, the common hope of science is part of the worldwide citizenship Obama proclaimed in Berlin:

People of Berlin — people of the world — this is our moment. This is our time.

So science and technology should take their place in America’s new outreach to the world, and especially to the world’s poor. More names for PCAST: Nicholas Negroponte of the One Laptop Per Child initiative; and the Gates couple – because of their foundation rather than as representatives of Microsoft, which can fight its own corner.

There’s one other person Obama really wants on his advisory team: he’s getting on a bit, but still on the cutting edge: the long-time past master of multicultural juvenile viral networking, open-source global branding, user-generated content, mobilisation of skilled adult volunteers, employment generation for indigenous peoples and superbly reliable zero-carbon logistics.

But there’s only one night left to catch him.

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