Dear W: Scientists Offer
President Advice on Policy
Congratulations! President George W. Bush is considering
asking you to serve as his science adviser. He asks that you write him a
memo addressing, "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and
the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"
So begins this year's online question from Edge, an e-salon
of leading scientists and members of the "Third Culture" (in answer to C.P.
Snow's scientists vs. humanists) presided over by Manhattan literary agent
and author John Brockman. In past years, the Edge community has weighed in
on the most important invention of the last 2000 years (Printing press?
Clock? Stirrups? Knitting? The Pill?) and on what questions have disappeared
(Was Einstein right? Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?).
This year -- with smallpox vaccination, bioterror,
stem-cell research, climate change, energy policy and missile defense
dominating news -- the annual question eschews intellectual posturing and
gets down to practicalities.
Much of the advice is unlikely to please the West Wing.
Marvin Minsky, the computer and artificial-intelligence pioneer, recommends
scrapping "the whole 'Homeland Defense' thing" as "cost-ineffective."
Calculating that the lifetime cost of preventing each airplane fatality will
be $100 million or so (with comparable numbers for the tsunami of other
public and private security measures undertaken since 9/11), he suggests "we
could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple
I suspect Prof. Minsky has "memo-ed" himself out of
consideration, as has William Calvin of the University of Washington,
Seattle. Prof. Calvin sounds a call to arms on abrupt climate change. In
contrast to the inexorable but slow alterations depicted by most models of
greenhouse-driven climate change, which we might adapt to, in an abrupt
change the planet "flips out of a warm-and-wet mode like today into the
alternate mode, which is cool, dry, windy, dusty." That has occurred
naturally dozens of times in Earth's past.
Before you greenhouse skeptics groan about scientists who
can't decide whether we're imperiled by warming or cooling, recall that
global warming can cause a change in the northern extension of the Gulf
Stream that could plunge Europe into a little ice age.
Prof. Calvin recognizes that getting politicians to act in
the face of scientific uncertainty and industry-backed opposition is "like
herding kittens," but notes that "the physician who waits until dead certain
of a diagnosis before acting is likely to wind up with a dead patient."
Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, urges a global
reconnaissance project: "We have identified as few as 5% of all the species
living on earth. ... We are trying to run a planet with only a dim sense of
what it is." Since we might run it into the ground, physicist Paul Davies of
Australia's Maquarie University resurrects a proposal by the president's
father: a manned mission to Mars with the goal of founding a "permanent
For those of us left behind, psychologist David Lykken of
the University of Minnesota advises Mr. Bush to harness the power of science
to stop crime. The vast majority of crime in America, he suggests, is
committed by "a growing and self-reproducing underclass consisting of the
unsocialized offspring of single mothers." What we therefore need is
research into "a program of parental licensure." To rear a baby, you'd have
to be mature, self-supporting, healthy and law-abiding. "Babies born to
unlicensed parents would be placed for permanent adoption."
Although there are pleas galore for government-funded
research into puzzles ranging from the biology of consciousness to
elementary particles (one is shocked -- shocked! -- that these suggestions
come from researchers who might benefit from such funding), the most common
theme is improving the truly deplorable state of education, especially
To do that, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., urges the
president to tap the science of mind. "Little in instructional practice has
been evaluated" scientifically, he writes. "Instead, classroom practice is
set by fads, romantic theories, slick packages and political crusades. We
need more of these assessments, and faster implementations of what works."
Science education is especially abysmal, and if we don't
whip it into shape fast, we're going to be in trouble. Artificial
Intelligence pioneer Roger Schank of Northwestern University in Evanston,
Ill., says science ed is still "about preparing for Harvard in 1892"
(Boyle's universal gas law, anyone?) "and not for life in 2003." He urges
Mr. Bush to "change our education policy ... emphasize everyday reasoning
issues like the use of stem cells or waste cleanup or snow removal or
alternative energy sources." As long as science professors prepare "future
scientists and not future Presidents, the nation suffers."
You can improve your own science education at
where the Edge memos will be available January 6.
• Write to Sharon Begley at