06 April 2010

Climate Science Dream Team

The students in my graduate seminar on science and technology policy are in the midst of a unit on scientific advisory committees. Part of this unit is a project to create a hypothetical science advisory committee in the area of climate science. The rules of the assignment are that
  • they can pick anyone in the world
  • the committee must be a "science arbitration" panel as described in The Honest Broker
  • the focal area is "physical climate science" a la IPCC Working Group I
  • the committee can have no more than 12 members
The purpose of the committee is to stand ready to respond to questions posed by policy makers, nationally and internationally, about physical climate science. Consistent with the notion of "science arbitration" questions about "what to do" are not part of the remit of the committee. We have discussed guidelines for empaneling such a committee as recommended to the Obama Administration by the Bipartisan Policy Center. However, the class groups are free to choose whomever they want and to justify those selections however they'd like.

The assignment is about looking inside the "black box" of expert committee empanelment and the role that scientific and extra-scientific considerations play in selecting a committee. Our discussion in class yesterday centered on this subject.

We have divided the class into 3 groups, and each is coming up with their own proposed committee and press release. The students, who come from a wide range of disciplines, are highly qualified for their role. They are doing a great job so far and the exercise has been a rich experiment for a range of reasons. The class is enthusiastic about getting your feedback on their products which we are going to post up here for public comment. Feel free to discuss the project and offer any advice to the class that might be useful in the comments here.

So stay tuned -- climate science dream teams coming soon.


  1. My one pick, Freeman Dyson, for the same reasons that Feynman sat on the Challenger panel.

  2. My first instinct is to say 12 random people from the phone book (per Buckley), but the question wasn't "who would do a better job than Congress?"

    In all seriousness, I would start with Steve McIntyre. He's smarter than anyone else I've read on the subject and he asks the most intelligent, probing questions. Then I'd pick your dad. He seems the most open-minded of the scientists, even if I disagree with some of his logic and his almost worshipful attitude toward "peer-review".

    I'd include a stats expert, a software pro, and an expert in forecasting models.

    Because the first step any such committee would have to take would be to start from the beginning and decide how much we really know. If you set up requirements for basic scientific method thresholds, we know very little. For example, given the shoddy stats and software underlying many studies, someone should replicate or at least audit any study before it should be deemed to have any merit. Same thing for the databases. Computer models used in forecasting would have to be verified and validated. And so on ....

    I would expect that such a committee, if the members were serious, honorable, and cognizant of their moral responsibility, would likely have to tell policymakers that there is very, very little in this area that has been researched, audited and replicated, verified and validated sufficient to make a definitive statement.

  3. Roger,

    Can you provide a short summary of what a "science arbitration" panel does if it does not advice politicians on "what to do"?

  4. I would choose 12 retired eminent physicists.

    British corporate journalist George Monbiot hates old people because many of them disagree with his views on global warming. He thinks they don't care, or they don't like to face death. An alternative view might be that he can't bully them out of their careers.


  5. -3-Raven

    A "Science Arbiter" seeks to answer questions that can be resolved empirically, such as, how many whales live in the ocean? There may be differences in methodologies, uncertainties, and ignorance, but in principle, such questions can be addressed using the tools of science.

    This is a different set of questions than, say, should whales be protected.

    The key here is that the questions are asked by policy makers and scientists seek to answer them, to the best of their ability.

    So in the context of this assignment, such a question might be, How much have temperatures risen in the past half-century?

    I hope this helps, and if you want more, you know where I'll send you ;-)

  6. "So in the context of this assignment, such a question might be, How much have temperatures risen in the past half-century?"

    Here are some more questions. (I think they're "better," in the sense that they are much more germane to policy changes.)

    For the years 2030, 2050, 2070, and 2100, without policy changes directed towards limiting warming:

    1) How much will the global average surface temperature rise?

    2) Even more important, how much will the global lower tropospheric temperature rise?

    3) How much will the sea level rise?

    4) How many more species will go extinct (than if the warming forcers were instantaneously reduced to zero in 2010)?

    5) What will be the additional damage from hurricanes and tornadoes (than if the warming forcers were instantaneously reduced to zero in 2010)?

    6) What will be the difference in population of polar bears (than if the warming forcers were instantaneously reduced to zero in 2010)?

    7) What will be the total number of deaths due to malaria (taking into account the likely reductions in malaria due to improvements in technology and increases in wealth...such that the answer could legitimately be "essentially zero" for 2050 and beyond)?

  7. To pick out two names with only minutes of thought:

    I would put both Pat Michaels and James Hansen on the panel.

  8. #6 markbahner,

    The trouble is the correct answer to all of those questions is "we don't really know because the uncertainties are too large" and those answers will be unacceptable to policy makers.

    What we need is a shift in culture where people stop using "science" as a crutch to avoid making value based decisions.

  9. I would pick a group retired industrial research managers. Nathan Myhvrold ex-Microsoft CTO is the sort i have in mind. No academics please. They are not use to betting the company's bottom line on their conclusions. I consider that essential qualification.

  10. I'd add somebody with a background in evaluating complex numerical simulations with large uncertainties in the inputs. A petroleum reservoir engineer might be a good choice but would probably be dismissed as a "denier"...

  11. Speaking as a non-scientist, whose knowledge of stats is - for all intents and purposes - non-existent, I would hope that at least one member of the committee would be an individual who is able to "translate" the science (without losing the nuances) into articulate and comprehensible (i.e. not post-modern!) English for those whose "first language" is neither science nor statistics.

  12. hrooo1 #11

    That is what industrial R&D managers do. They need to explain things to people who mostly have no science background.

  13. Put Hansen AND McIntyre on the committee, and then sell the television rights. Ignore the "advice" (if any), but use the profits to fund alternative energy projects.

    More seriously: the committee will need to have one person from every continent except Antarctica, one from every economic block (OPEC, BRIC--or is it now BASIC?, EU, US), and at least one Francophone.

  14. Pick me, Pick me for the Committee! I promise to bring balance, hope, change, and EVERYTHING that EVERYONE wants! Pick Me!

  15. AGW is a social movement, and it will be difficult to get true believers to listen to a panel of scientists. There are many AGW promoters and profiteers with vested interests who will continue to resist things that counter their beliefs.
    Unfortunately, many politicians and those who influence the politicians are true believers.
    I guess I am not sure that a panel will not be as effective as it were for say the Challenger tragedy.

  16. Two economists. One Monetarist and one Keynesian.

    Did they ever reach a consensus? It can't be easy given the chaotic nature of the economy. Their data probably had quality issues as well.

  17. Mike McHenry #11

    Thanks, good to know someone agrees with me (or vice versa!)

  18. scientistscitizens 13:
    A representative from each continent sounds to be designed more for dividing spoils than defining the scientific issues.

  19. What a great assignment. For a time I chaired the Bureau of Land Management Science Advisory Board (since abolished). We helped the bureau write its Science Strategy, which was a guide to developing and marketing its science needs for more effective land management decisions. In it we said this:

    "Science is useful for evaluating alternatives and estimating outcomes. However, it is not the sole factor in making decisions because the state of natural resource science is often insufficient to give definitive cause-effect predictions. Unknowns and uncertainties will always be associated with predictions
    of decision outcomes. Science may reduce
    but can never completely eliminate the uncertainty regarding future events. However, the use of the best-available science – along with a consideration of political, social, and economic information –will result in the best-informed decisions"

    Wonder if that is useful for other advisory boards?

    John Freemuth
    Cecil Andrus Center for Public Policy
    Boise State University

  20. #8 Raven writes, "The trouble is the correct answer to all of those questions is 'we don't really know because the uncertainties are too large' and those answers will be unacceptable to policy makers."

    I have two responses to that, but I'll only be able to complete the first response during my lunch break:

    In my opinion, the goal of a science arbitration panel should not be to provide answers that are "acceptable to policy makers." The goal of a science arbitration panel should be to identify and explain the science. For example, most scientists agree that the world warmed by 0.5 to 1.0 degree Celsius between 1900 and 2000. The science arbitration panel should say that. (And if the science arbitration panel disagrees with most scientists, the panel should say that, too.)

    Now, let's *suppose* that the panel found that there was a 25 percent chance that the world would warm by more than 5 degrees Celsius by 2050, but also a 25 percent chance that the world would cool by more than 5 degrees Celsius by 2050. (This is just a hypothetical. It's extremely unlikely that the world will warm or cool by 5 degrees Celsius by 2050.) Well, that's what the science arbitration panel should say. They should say that even though such a conclusion would make it nearly impossible to say whether CO2 and other global warming emissions should be dramatically curtailed (or even dramatically increased!).