The Science Budget Talking Point

REPOSTING: The following was originally posted April 8, 2007. (Note: the first dozen comments are also from 2007.)

I am hoping to see recent numbers. I imagine the 2010 budget will show some improvement but as far as I know the annual US budget for climate science research (as opposed to data collection or impacts studies) through 2009 remains comparable to the budget for a Pixar movie.

I believe that the sort of auditability people are asking for is 1) actually a good idea and 2) not supportable by tghe present small community with its tightly constrained budget. Given that the actual issue is four or five orders of magnitude larger than the science budget, it makes sense to expend considerably more on a more formal science. Meanwhile, people who are complaining about the informality and close-knit nature of the community should be advocating for budget increases, not cuts.

The auditability people are butting heads against the myth that the climate science community is wealthy.


April 8, 2007

The claim that scientists have been conspiratorially drumming up climate fears to increase our funding appears specious to most of us. How would such a conspiracy be organized? How would we prevent defections? Nevertheless this idea has currency with the public. Supporting this argument is the idea, apparently promoted by Lindzen that the climate science budget has ballooned enormously.

It is true that there are 2 billion under a “climate change” rubric, but in fact half of it is NASA’s earth observation missions, a program which I would think any sane person would support. The massive “growth” of the program in its early days was not due to new projects but due to enfolding existing projects under the new name.

So what has happened to the science budget over the past sixteen years in fact? It has increased by 9% after inflation. Adjusted for inflation, actual US climate research (not data collection, not data dissemination, not technology or adaptation research, not impacts research, but the part that climate scientists stand to benefit from, has increased by 9% since 1993 according to the GAO.

More or less. The GAO adds the caveat “these data were difficult to compare over the entire time period because CCSP periodically introduced new categorization methods without explaining how the new methods were related to the ones they replaced”. (page 4)

Can the climate research budget actually been in decline? Anecdotally, I have been hearing about “belt tightening” through my entire career.

The climate research budget of NSF, which funds most of what most of us think of as climate science, including most climate modeling, is inconsistent over the period. It has wild oscillations but shows no trend. (see p 35 of the GAO report; note these figures are not inflation-adjusted) and is about 10% of the total CCSP budget, about 200 million, enough to support maybe about 600 scientists and professional staff (consider infrastructure needs, travel and publication costs, and equipment).

What about the near future? Well, here I can only report the entire CCSP aggregate, which is [12/09: sorry, link is dead] in a period of rapid decline, of about 20% over 4 years.

Boy, this scaremongering isn’t paying as well as you might think.

Admittedly, most of the cuts are out of NASA’s earth observation budget, which is a bit beside the point, though it is really enormously unfortunate. However, Mars seems to be a bigger priority than the Earth these days, because, um, well because you don’t need a rocketship to get to the Earth, now do you?

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A Litmus Test for the Naysayers

The denial group is behaving in a very revealing way.

The denialists are now trumpeting a very silly argument that El Nino (a quasiperiodic oscillation with energy in the 2-10 year band) is dominating secular trends in global temperature by an argument that I summarized in seven steps recently.

I would like to start the day with a shorter summary:

1) El Nino dominates interannual variability.
2) Frantic armwaving, accompanied by sciencey-looking charts and graphs.
3) Therefore, warming is predominantly due to El Nino.
4) Therefore, very not the IPCC.

Of course conclusion 4 will resonate with the Not the IPCC crowd. It is the conclusion they want, er, I mean, the conclusion that their serious thought has led them to in the past, right?

The trouble is, their argument goes like this

1) The sun is the source of atmospheric energy
2) Frantic armwaving, accompanied by sciencey-looking charts and graphs.
3) Therefore, warming is predominantly due to solar changes.
4) Therefore, very not the IPCC.

Admittedly, there is some similarity in the discourse. But notice, notice carefully, the subtle difference. These are based on altogether different premises and reach (in step 3) contradictory conclusions. They cannot both be true!

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that either or both of these were scientific hypotheses and not political gamesmanship. Then, whoops, while they reach identical political conclusions, they are competing scientific hypotheses. Therefore the scientists, having two competing hypotheses, will immediately set out to find evidence in support of their view and in opposition to the other.

On the other hand, if both groups are simply seeking ways to reach conclusion 4, they will consider themselves compatible and issue mutual congratulations. So have a look at the usual “skeptic” sources and see whether this new information is

A) dismissed as nonsense
B) thoughtfully treated as a significant challenge to their world view
C) celebrated without much regard for intellectual coherence

Only responses A or B are consistent with scientific thought. For instance, as I write I haven’t looked at Watts Up yet, but I am guessing C.

Hmm, my prognostic abilities are validated!

The Not the IPCC crowd is making a mistake by lining up behind this McLean nonsense. In doing so they demonstrate that they have no scientific hypothesis.


People on record with a solar-centric view who immediately celebrate this result demonstrate that whatever thought they have put into this problem has no scientific component. They simply have a political view that the IPCC must be wrong and will promote anything that sheds doubt on the consensus view.
That’s politics, not science. Which is what we’ve been saying about them all along.

Sustainable Science Journalism Toward a Sustainable World

This is something of a rant about science journalism and my place in it. 

The core of the matter is this.

In our peculiar circumstances, science writing has an ethical component.

Although speech is free in a free country, individuals or corporations aren’t free of ethical responsibility for what they write. The problems we face these days are so vast, the decisions we collectively make so consequential, that the ethical responsibility is greatly magnified. 

That said, here is the problem.  I heard Clay Shirky say this at the ill-fated #sxswbp: filtering (editing) is everything. “The filter is the single most important function on the internet today.”

Before the internet, anybody could say anything, but nobody could get anybody to listen. The Brits maintained their soapbox tradition in Hyde Park, I imagine, but I doubt anybody gathers much of an audience that way anymore. The action, for almost a century now, has been in the mass media. Consequently, for the lifetime of everybody living and until just a few months ago, it was the moneyed interests who decided who would speak and who would be silent.

This broke down a bit in the period of 1966-1974, often called “the sixties”, a brief period when radicals understood media better than the people who owned them. Soon enough everything interesting about that period was sanitized, obfuscated and duly forgotten by everybody who wasn’t privileged to come of age exactly at that moment.

Control of intellectual input by the corporate sector is totally shattered now.
There is no governance on the internet. It’s totally mob rule, as a Google search on “global warming consensus” will instantly reveal. The corporations run a bigger chunk of the economy than ever; even our barristas are publicly traded. But they have lost control of the media in a way that makes the revolution of the sixties look like a fraternity prank. (Which, in a way, it was, come to think of it.)

The corporate control of the Overton window (thanks to Eli for teaching me the concept) was already weakening before the great AIG screwup proved what many of us had always suspected about the Phil Gramms of the world. Now it’s hopeless. Speech is uncontrolled but it doesn’t matter very much, because nobody trusts anybody anymore.

This is both very good news and very bad news. Freedom is the good news. If you have something interesting to say, you can find the audience to whom it is interesting. There is much more interesting stuff to read nowadays. 


Unfortunately, we also have the bad news. Lies are cheaper than truth, vague misgivings cheaper than balanced analyses, and wild-ass guesses cheaper than interview and investigation. In short, noise dominates signal. As things stand, most people lack effective filters. 

An important function that the corporations used to provide for us, and before that the culture and the churches, was to provide a sense of what was reasonable and what was outlandish, what was worthy of polite conversation and what was certifiable. As we lose this imposed sense of propriety, we are in desperate need of filters, of reliable mechanisms to connect the people who have lost faith in every institution to the people who really do mean well and really do know what the f*** they are talking about.

Now, one could argue (I used to argue this more vehemently) that science at least provides a model for how this could be done. It turns out that for a vast range of reasons, that science is struggling to scale up to its modern circumstances as well.

Instead, it surprisingly appears that the most functional corner of civilization nowadays is the software design community. (The reasons for that could fill books, and better books need to be written on the subject.) Many people are already  looking to the software community, particularly the open source community. for models of how to better organize ourselves at scale. This is promising, one of the few trends that is promising. And indeed, that model may solve science’s internal communication and validation problems as it tries to scale to unprecedented complexity. That isn’t the problem that has been occupying me, though.


The problem that suddenly fell into my lap was not that of George Will, nor of Roger Pielke Jr., nor of Mark Morano, nor Glenn Beck (nor Laurie David or James Kunstler either). These people’s successes and failures all shine some light on our collective dysfunction in one way or another, but
the moment I slapped my forehead and said, that’s it, I’m in the wrong game, something has to be done, was specifically in reference to Andy Revkin.

Three things, to me, are fairly obvious about Andy Revkin:

  • 1) he has a wonderful job and enjoys it and does it competently and successfully
  • 2) he thinks he is helping
  • 3) he isn’t.

And it’s point three that specifically galvanized me into rethinking whether this blog is really a hobby.


 It started with removing Revkin from my blogroll, but of course I don’t think he cares. At worst it will cost him a handful of hits a month, and honestly, I am not going to stop reading it. To his credit, despite the extent to which I am on his case, Revkin still takes my comments, too. Delisting him on my humble little blog seems a pathetic and futile gesture, and maybe it will turn out to be. It’s meant as a gesture. What matters in substance is replacing the Times as an authoritative source for scientific reporting. If Revkin thinks his family’s comfort is more important than the survival of the planet, if he doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to the publisher and say “kill the Dyson crap or I am out of here” or something like that, he is not doing us much good. As my good friend John M says, “you can’t achieve anything if you’re not willing to quit your job over principle“.

Revkin might say that somebody else will be glad to do his job at the Times. A problematic excuse, of course. One thing you can easily say is just, yes, Andy, but not as well. We need you telling the truth full time, not 50.00% of the time.

The problem, of course, is that the Times is a pre-internet institution, and is incapable of blunt honesty that might be inconvenient for its owners or its advertisers. This is just a human foible under ordinary circumstances, but the time for hemming and hawing is over. The world is changing in ways that are casually obvious and are likely to become overwhelming if not grappled with soon. If these ways are embarrassing to the corporations that own newspapers, they simply must be replaced. I know that sounds grandiose, but I am not just windmill-tilting here. The Times is not serving effectively in science journalism of policy consequence. (The same phenomenon likely applies to the rest of their reporting, but that’s not my topic here.)

In the huge tangled quandary that the world faces today truth is the commodity in most desperate shortage, and its lack is traced to the lack of its raw material, trust.

So what will replace the Times given that the Times has gone out of its way to prove that we cannot actually trust the Times?

A good place to start is from analyses of the future of the press in general, and Steven B. Johnson has that one right. And here is his figure, which I am lifting from his sxsw talk.

It seems that there must be a role for me in developing some corner of Johnson’s model for scientific communication to the general public. But what? What’s the business model? It’s obvious to me that filtering is crucial.

The issue in scientific reporting is about trust. One has to create mechanisms for individual science writers to establish trust with their audience. This isn’t without precedent. I trusted Asimov, I trusted Sagan, I trusted Gould. Didn’t you? The writer is the brand. It is only with the individual human voice that trust develops. I read those guys because I trusted them. I trusted them for at least three reasons:

  • they wrote things I could understand,
  • they were close enough to science to know how it works,
  • they spoke with their own voices in ways that average everyday people around me never seemed to manage.

The great pop science writers of my youth were lucky to be on relatively uncontroversial turf (less so Gould, I guess, but I always found doubts about evolution to be laughable.) Nowadays though, I just discover someone like the unspellable Hrynyshyn and find myself trusting him, whether he is being controversial or not, whether I agree with him or not. When I take the time to read Hrynyshyn I get something out of it; it alters my point of view. When I read Revkin, I expect him not to get the facts wrong, but now that I understand what he does better, I am very surprised if the experience affects my behavior or beliefs in any way. Revkin is not wrong, usually, but a scientist is usually right, and usually in a non-obvious way. There is a difference. And in the quandary we are all facing, that is the difference we desperately need.

In the course of becoming a not entirely anonymous blogger I’ve met a couple of science journalists in person, some of whom I admire more than others, some of whom are quite commendable. I hope I’m not out of line in singling out John Fleck as a standout. But unfortunately he also seems to me still something of an exception. For the most part, I get a lot more out of reading scientists, or journalists who were trained as scientists, on science than I do from reading trained journalists on science, even if that’s their beat. Don’t you?

(Less profoundly and with more exceptions, but still strikingly, I get more out of reading scientists on politics and economics than I do journalists, politicians and economists. For instance, Steinn Sigurdsson has been “indispensible” on the Iceland story, but has opened my eyes to many other aspects of the economic crisis as well. Steinn is an astronomer.)

It doesn’t matter what level of sophistication the article is pitched at. Scientists writing at the 11th grade level are usually much more interesting to me than journalists writing at that level. See Grumbine, for instance, or my scientific colleagues on the imperfect but lamented Correlations blog.


So, let’s pretend a business model has emerged in my fevered brain out of all these constraints. What would it be like?

What I’m willing to say about it:

  • reporters must own their content and be their own brand
  • filtering is crucial and must be achieved by a collaborative infrastructure
  • new software is involved
  • I think I see how the people who work hard enough and produce a good enough product can get paid even though the content will be free. Anyway after pondering it intensively for six weeks, I have an idea worth considering.
  • Science journalism is my target, but the core idea will probably work for some other branches of reporting.

I’d like to talk this through with someone willing to confer in confidence. I need allies to make this work (even as a nonprofit, which is definitely a consideration). Which is really the point of this great long rant. I am looking for somebody to talk business who understands the nature of the problem, something about how the web works, and a little bit about making a business concern go. 


The business model chart, as I said, is lifted from the linked Steven B Johnson article

The comic clippings are from an episode of Tom the Dancing Bug
I thought Bora Z might be having some similar thoughts so I deliberately avoided reading his recent article on science journalism until I got this out to avoid undue influence. So finally I looked at it. He did indeed say some similar things among many ideas. His recent article on blogging, journalism and science is excellent indeed and very highly recommended for those who care about communicating science.

The Problem and the Problem with the Problem


The prolific (and arguably indispensable) Joe Romm has a terrifying summary about global warming which appears to me to be pretty much on the mark.

Joe believes that people who understand the situation in this way should stick together. Given the scope of the problem, and the vast difference between the perspectives of those few who understand it and those many who don’t, you’d think we ought to stick together through thick and thin.

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point:

Where he goes wrong is that he seems to see this primarily as a political calamity in terms of the administration’s standing both domestically and in the eyes of international participants at the coming Copenhagen conference. That’s all true enough, but I think it’s important for people not to write about this issue without mentioning that failure to start reducing carbon emissions in the very near term is a substantive human and ecological catastrophe. Absent emissions reductions, the globe will continue to warm. That will, year after year, keep altering weather patterns around the world. A world inhabited by six billion people based on patterns of settlement established under existing climactic patterns. Climate change means drought and famine, flood and forest fire, all in new and unprepared places. People will die.

Well, people will die anyway, but let’s not split hairs. This is starting to look like the whole world is a complete idiot and will march over the cliff in some sort of hypnotic trance.

The problem with the problem is that people don’t actually believe it. They think we are, not to put too fine a point on it, making shit up. Why they think that is obvious enough. Some people are trying very hard to confuse matters. And being very effective at it.

The question that immediately follows, the motivating question of “In It” is “so what should we do about it“? And here we have a problem: the confusers have managed to convince the public that people who express deep concern do so for personal gain. In my own case, it has been nothing of the sort, at least insofar as personal gain reduces to wealth.

I very much appreciate and enjoy any encouragement I get form my readers. It has been one of the nicest aspects of the past couple of years. Indeed, I would like to be able to get a tiny amount of personal gain from doing what I do here. While not everybody could do the work I currently do for pay, I’d have to admit I’m replaceable. I could make a much better contribution given the time.

But that leads to an interesting problem of credibility. Lawrence Lessig, at a very impressive talk at SXSW, argued that a big problem with government nowadays is the corrupting power of money which mostly flows through issue advocacy. Once you associate yourself with a position for pay, your opinion, your arguments, even your soundest unassailable proofs, automatically lose value in the discourse.

Unfortunately we have entered a period when the truth itself “has a liberal bias”. Things are really serious.

Does that mean that one has to toe the line for fear of injuring one’s allies? Many people seem to think so.

But I’d like CSS on the table, and nuclear, and also reduced growth and economic decline. All of these options are anathema to the engine of green politics. And as for the cap and trade vs carbon tax thing, I’m just completely dazed and confused. I’d like to take it up as a neutral party.

I am no longer interested in debating the “Ravens” of the world on their terms. They are a problem but I find it odd that people persist in engaging them as if they had any intention of examining their beliefs. But we have to find some way to make it visible to the world that they are not actually the real thing.

To do that we need credibility, and to gain credibility we have to avoid lining up behind ideas that make little sense.

For instance? I’m glad you asked.

I am interested in debating the proposition that “green jobs” will “revive the economy” in the short run. It’s considered heresy to question this in some circles, but there’s a simple argument that in traditional economic terms it just can’t be true, else it would have happened already.

Yes, it will cost. The longer we wait the more it will cost. We have to get started regardless of the cost; there is no limit to the cost of never shifting to sutainability. No limit short of the end of life.

Does it really help matters to pretend that there is some conspiracy behind the use of coal instead of wind and solar? How shall we think about these things if nobody is allowed to say anything other than the most cheerful nonsense on their side?

Well, it’s not disallowed, it just doesn’t have much presence in the “marketplace of ideas”. Scientists are funded to talk to scientists. Anti-scientists are funded to talk to the public. Even the political parties aligned with the science scowl furiously at any effort to publicly think things through.

So how to fund a voice that is perceived as intelligent and independent, that engages with politics while representing science? The traditional structures of science and of politics and of journalism all fail us: not just me, who really would like to do that sort work if it existed somehow, but all of us, who need to think our way out of our quandary collectively.

Like Lyndon Johnson, we should recall the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.” That doesn’t mean ignoring the seriousness of our predicament, but on the other hand it doesn’t mean marching in lockstep either.

We have to butt heads or we won’t get anywhere. There’s my paraphrase of Isaiah 1:18.


I am going to try to do better with image credits, but I can’t track down the page the excellent drought photo was on. It is from a government site in New South Wales, Oz.
The grackle is available at Stuffed Ark .



Lindzen Diatribe

It looks like Lubos Motl gets credit for the first notice in the blogosphere of Lindzen’s astonishing new rant about the state of climate science.

As is often the case with people who are too sure of themselves, he turns out guilty of some of the things he accuses his opponents of. He politicizes and conspiratorializes rather than simply addressing the problem dispassionately. His personal characterization of other scientists is grossly excessive in at least one occasion. I am inclined to extrapolate that his understanding of specific events is similarly skewed.

It’s important to acknowledge that there is a legitimate point underneath all this bile. While scientists may be obligated to be advocates in extreme situations, science itself must remain distinct from advocacy if it is to be of any use at all. This is absolutely crucial in matters of public import.

There are definitely signs that the capacity of science to absorb new information is in decline. This may indeed bias the perception in client sciences (which use the output of climate science) of the extent and timing of anticipated climate disruption.

It’s essential, for example, that the IPCC not overstate the certainty of its conclusions and that the community remain open to reasonably well-formed criticism. Any evidence that anything else has been happening in the past should be met with something other than emotive defensiveness. This may be hard given the confrontational tone adopted by some of the critics, including Lindzen here.

Science must make judgments, and some of those it finds wanting will always be offended. I am reasonably convinced that Lindzen’s “iris effect” is refuted; Lindzen apparently is not. It is hard to know when to close such a debate, especially with a person who has made real contributions in the past.

I’m not softening on Lindzen. Indeed think this particular contribution is rather toxic. Still, it’s obvious that (to the extent that he wrote this) he isn’t so far gone as to be considered stupid.

I actually think the community has been extremely tolerant of Lindzen, going quite some way to allow his theories into print. It’s the unestablished outsider that has a real complaint, as far as I can see.

Any evidence that the publication selection method is based on something other than science is a cause for concern; alas, there is evidence for such. It’s not about “politics” in the usual sense though. It’s basically that many scientists can’t write, many scientists have no time to read, and the entire publication mechanism that is the metric of performance is consequently flawed. The bias is toward papers emerging from established research groups. If this becomes excessive science becomes “academic” in the worst sense.

Which brings us back to Lindzen’s diatribe. I am hoping the bizarre snipe at Ray P was ghostwritten. It’s inexcusable. I am confident that Ray has never publicly addressed scientific matters other than scientifically, and is in no reasonable sense fanatical. At best, Lindzen “approved the message”. As such he is very clearly participating in the degradation of scientific conversation he claims to be bemoaning. As far as I am concerned, this one gross misstatement colors the credibility of the entire article. Perhaps others will find other similarly grotesque mischaracterizations elsewhere.

Crude swipes at the few people with the talent to both read and write effectively at the highest levels hardly seem designed to improve matters.

Likely this paper will be a Palinesque effort, energizing the “base” who have preconceived notions along these lines, and having little effect elsewhere.

It’s a shame. We do need to rethink how science is done. This sort of injured and injurious argumentation will do little to advance that prospect.

Don’t Major in Sea Ice

The New York Times has a story about the astonishing decline in sea ice this summer.

An interesting twist appears. If sea ice continues to vanish, it’s a fertile research topic, likely to be funded, likely to be published. Unless, that is, it goes away altogether. When the ice cover becomes purely seasonal, it becomes a less interesting phenomenon for field study or modeling. The problem is that this may happen sooner than expected.

A sardonic quote from an Alaskan geophysicist about this is nevertheless not entirely a matter of grim humor:

At a recent gathering of sea-ice experts at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Hajo Eicken, a geophysicist, summarized it this way: “Our stock in trade seems to be going away.”

Anyway, even if Eicken isn’t serious, I am. Should we be as concerned about the glaciologists as about the polar bears who are under the same threat? More so? Less so?

How much risk should scientists be taking in the event that their field goes out of fashion (or, in this case, out of existence)? There are a lot of intrinsic reasons to do science, but there are some extrinsic reasons not to bother. What should be the fate of the person who bets on the wrong scientific horse?

Scientists historically traded off the possibility of wealth for a life of calm contemplation, not one of personal financial risk. If the deal gets worse, fewer people will become scientists. This matters.

What’s In A Name?

Good news for a change:

President George W. Bush signed a major science and technology bill this morning at a White House ceremony.

Just before it recessed last week, Congress passed the bill calling for multi-billion-dollar increases in federal support for science, math and technology funding over the next three years.

Among provisions, the bill authorizes (but does not appropriate funding for) doubling the budgets for National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce National Institutes of Standards and Technology laboratories.
Additionally, the bill significantly expands NSF scholarships and math and science partnerships, as well as many other educational and research programs. It establishes an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy at DOE.

In a press conference this morning, Bush said the law includes many of the provisions he has requested, but added, “I will continue to focus my budget requests on key funding priorities.”

The actual funds are provided via appropriation bills to the individual departments and agencies.

The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act (COMPETES), is widely regarded as a landmark measure.

It must be the clever quasi-corporate acronym that closed the deal.