US Senate

17 Apr

The United States House and Senate have just released their versions of the FY 2013 appropriations bills for the National Science Foundation, one of America's most prominent scientific funding bodies. Both chambers of

 

Here I'd like to focus on what the Senate in particular had to say about astronomy research. The following comes directly from the Senate Appropriations Committee report:

 

Astronomy. -- The Committee recommends the full budget request of $244,550,000 for astronomical sciences in fiscal year 2013, of which $161,890,000 shall be used for infrastructure. The additional funds should be applied within astronomical infrastructure so that all existing observatories receive not less than 98 percent of the higher of their fiscal year 2011 or fiscal year 2012 funding level as specified in the congressional justification for fiscal year 2013. The research resources line is funded at the budget request as is preconstruction planning. No funds should be applied to the Telescope System Instrumentation Program. Research investment in the EARS program from astronomy should be reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis from the level proposed in the budget request. Funding for EARS will be considered from non-astronomical division sources if the Foundation seeks a reprogramming in the fiscal year 2013 spending plan.

“The Committee notes that the Foundation has proposed a wide ranging review of the portfolio for investments in astronomy including optical astronomy facilities, radio astronomy facilities, and individual investigator grants. Although the overall budget request level for fiscal year 2013 proposed an increase for NSF of 4.8 percent over fiscal year 2012, astronomy infrastructure was proposed to be held constant in the fiscal year 2013 request. The Committee intends to review any proposed restructuring of the portfolio for astronomy to ensure balance among the competing programs, and that core infrastructure capabilities needed to preserve U.S. leadership and broad access for the community are preserved.

“The Committee welcomes the line item identification of pre-construction funds for future major MREFC [Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction] projects, including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the astrophysics decadal survey’s top ranked ground-based priority in the coming decade. This joint NSF-Department of Energy project will provide unprecedented views of the changing sky and will drive key advances in cyber-infrastructure and large-volume data management. The Committee provides funding at the request level in order to make progress towards a potential new start in a subsequent year, subject to the project meeting the necessary conditions for such action.

 

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have approved their versions of the FY 2013 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Bill. The full House is considering this bill today, the first of twelve appropriations measures to come to the floor.

Below are selections from the House and Senate appropriations reports pertaining to the National Science Foundation. Language within each report stands, unless there is a conflict that will be resolved in the final conference report. This final conference report will also resolve differences in recommended funding levels.

FY 2012 appropriation is $5,719.0 million
FY 2013 Administration request is $5,983.3 million
FY 2013 Senate recommendation is $5,883.3 million, an increase of $164.3 million or 2.9 percent
FY 2013 House recommendation is $5,942.7 million, an increase of $223.7 million or 3.9 percent

Senate report language:

Following a description of the mission of Research and Related Activities, the report states:

“The Committee’s

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fiscal year 2013 recommendation renews its support for Federal long-term basic research that has the potential to be transformative to our economy and our way of life in the context of a Federal budget that is shrinking. However, the Foundation has chosen, in its budget request, to prioritize new initiatives while cutting support for core, merit-based science grants and for scientific infrastructure like ships and facilities. The seven ‘OneNSF’ framework priority activities have grown nearly fivefold from $166,750,000 in fiscal year 2011 to $807,100,000 in the fiscal year 2013 request. While the Committee supports these multi-disciplinary initiatives, it cannot do so by cutting NSF’s core programs.

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Do "Smart Marks" Help or Hurt the Wrestling Business?

17 Apr

http://www.quora.com/Professional-Wrestling-1/Do-Smart-Marks-help-or-hurt-the-professional-wrestling-industry?__snids__=103301674&__nsrc__=4

 

In some respects smart marks help the business and in others they hurt it. Their best quality is passion. They love wrestling and continuously invest their time and money to support it at all levels. They often comprise a majority of the audience at indy shows, so much so that many smaller promotions might not exist without them. These shows are critical to the business since they provide a stage upon which young wrestlers can hone their craft.

Smart marks can often be assumed as “a given.” Whether the business is hot or cold, they will always be there. On one hand, their constant baseline level of support prevents the floor from falling out of the pro wrestling business. On the other hand, this means they can be more easily taken advantage of since companies like WWE know they will buy whatever they put out.

However, there are some smart marks whose behavior can detract from the quality of a show. Some become a distraction

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when they act as if they’re part of the event. For example, a handful with a vendetta against a performer can chant “boring” loud enough to ruin the experience for others.

They can also become jaded to the extent that nothing pleases them anymore. When the same fans attend a company’s shows over and over again, as with the TNA Impact Zone, their reactions die out because they’ve seen everything before. Once a company breaks free of them, as TNA did by leaving the Impact Zone, the shows can become more vibrant.

Other smart marks believe that good wrestling depends on how many spots wrestlers can work into a match. They think that if a wrester can’t perform a flipping powerbomb into a twisting springboard DDT 5 seconds into the match, he’s garbage. This mentality diminishes the impact of all moves and makes them mean less. (As a counterexample, see CM Punk’s piledriver on John Cena during their #1 Contender’s match for the WWE Championship at Wrestlemania 29 on February 25, 2013’s episode of Raw.)

I once heard a story about two ROH wrestlers working a frenetic style during a show. When they came backstage they encountered George South who suggested that they slow down and make individual moves matter more. The wrestlers said they couldn’t do that because the fans would chew them up for it. In effect, the reactions of a small group of fans had directly influenced (arguably negatively) the styles of wrestlers in the nation’s third largest promotion.

So with smart marks you get a mixed bag. In a sense, they are a critical component of the audience that supports young wrestlers and is usually willing to part with their money to support wrestling. At their worst, they can think that what they like matters more than anything else and any wrestler who doesn’t meet their conception of greatness isn’t worth the time of day.

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C and C Wrestle Factory Go Chasing the Dragon - The ROH Report

17 Apr

Here are live spoilers and impressions from the second ROH TV taping from the Du Burns Arena in Baltimore on June 23. It will air this weekend on the Sinclair network.

------------------------------------------------

WHAT TO WATCH: C&C vs. ReDRagon for the Tag Titles was a spectacle. Several other tag teams spent the majority of the match brawling at ringside so there was a lot to pay attention to. It was entertaining while we were watching it live. Chiampa and Marshall worked their assess off and told a pretty good story regarding Chiampa’s injured knee. They had a solid match with some good moments, but it didn’t rise to the level of being spectacular. If you like Bennett’s mic work, you’ll probably like his interview segment.

------------------------------------------------

Match 1: Thomasa Chiampa def. QT Marshall (with RD Evans) in a Grudge Match in 13 minutes - Thomasa Chiampa was the overwhelming fan favorite. His anger was unbridled. He even started the match by flipping Marshall the double birds and telling him, “Go fuck yourself.”

A lot of this match was fought on the floor. Chiampa threw Marshall into the barricade and then suplexed him on the exposed floor, sending the crowd into a frenzy. They chanted “one more time,” Chiampa nodded hysterically and obliged.

Chiampa hit one running knee into Marshall in the corner, but Evans grabbed his leg on the second attempt. This distraction allowed Marshall to gain control with a clothesline. Then Marshall took over. He nailed a dropkick while Chiampa was sitting on the top turnbuckle. Marshall then dropped Chiampa knee first on the apron. When Chiampa tried to block Marshall’s charge with his leg, Marshall grabbed it, put a ton of force on the top of his knee and Chiampa dropped like a bag of bricks.

Chiampa would give an Oscar-worthy performance selling the knee for the

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rest of the match. Marshall locked in a figure 4, but Chiampa recovered enough to knock Marshall to the floor and launched on top of him. Both men were down.

At this point, Prince Nana came to the entrance ramp to survey the situation. Both men barely made the referee's 20 count, but Chiampa looked out on his feet. He fought back valiantly and defiantly, absorbing everything Marshall could throw at him. He hulked up just enough to hit the kryptonite krunch. Evans stormed the ring, but Chiampa chased him out right into Nana’s lap. Evans whirled around again only to get nailed by Project Chiampa. Chiampa’s facials communicated that his knee was absolutely killing him.

Marshall went for the pin, got 2 and chained into the stretch muffler. Chiampa reversed into a small package for 2. He then hit Marshall with a muay thai knee to the face and knees to face until he got the 3 count.

------------------------------------------------

Match 2: Mike Bennett (with Maria and Brutal Bob) def. Mike Beverly in 8 seconds - Cheap shot, Box Office Smash and it’s over. Bennett has paperwork in his hand and the mic.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Mike Bennett teased resigning his ROH contract, but disingenuously offered it to Cheeseburger before cheap shotting him. Brutal Bob broke it up, but when he did Bennett attacked him. Bennett concluded the segment saying, “Bob, I am no longer your Prodigy. The Prodigy is dead.”

BENNETT: Should I stay or should I go?

(crowd: Go! Stay!)

BENNETT: It seems to be the $6 million question these days, doesn’t it? Should I stay here? Or maybe I’ll go to Connecticut and collect a paycheck. (crowd boos) You know what? Maybe I’ll stay. What I have here is an official Ring of Honor contract. They have been begging me, pleading with me practically on their knees, saying please stay, just like all of you people need me to stay.

BENNETT: What you do not realize is that you need me and I do not need any of you. This contract is very lucrative. It’s very long and it means you people will be seeing me for an extremely long time. (crowd chants yes) See, exactly what I thought - typical Ring of Honor fans chanting, “Yes! Yes!” That’s what you do! You think you’re so smart, don’t you? You think you have it all figured out. You people don’t know what a star would look like it if it bit you in the ass. You know, you people boo me but you cheer for someone like Cheeseburger!? (crowd chants Cheeseburger, who is present at ringside)

BENNETT: Hey, you know what Cheeseburger? We’ve had our problems, I’ll admit, but this is exactly what I’m talking about. These fans are so stupid. They’d rather see you! So you know what? This is what I’m going to do. I have a very lucrative deal here. How about I just offer it to you? Come on in. Come sign this.

Maria sat on the ropes as Cheeseburger slowly entered the ring.

BENNETT: I know we’ve had our issues. But you proved something to me. You’re tough and I respect that. You know what, Cheese? Look this [contract] over. You’ve never seen one of those right? How about this? How about you sign this and you can be the next Ring of Honor star. Come on, Maria, give him a pen.

Bennett then superkicked Cheeseburger right in the face. Bennett laid into Cheeseburger with punches as Brutal Bob tried to pull him off.

BOB: I said that’s enough. It ends now.

As Brutal Bob checked on Cheeseburger, Bennett gave him the Box Office Smash.

BENNETT: For far, far, far too long the Prodigy has been portrayed as one thing, but no longer. Bob, I am no longer your Prodigy. The Prodigy is dead.

------------------------------------------------

Jay Briscoe came to the ring.

JAY BRISCOE: You know, there’s been a lot of speculation about Best in the World. A lot of people wondering about the health of Jay Briscoe. It’s true. I did reinjure my shoulder in my match against my brother, but I’m still breathing. Matt Hardy, if you think I’m forfeiting this title you’re crazy, boy. The only way you’re getting this title is if you pry it from my cold dead hands. That’s all I got to say. I’ll see you next week, bitch.

------------------------------------------------

Match 3: ReDRagon successfully defended the Ring of Honor Tag Team Championships vs. C&C Wrestle Factory in 12:10 - C&C controlled the match early with elbows, slams, punches and a leg lariat. The flurry ended when Cedric flew through the middle ropes, taking out ReDRagon on the floor. Kyle fought back, hitting Coleman with a double dropkick from the apron to the floor and an STO on Cedric.

At this point the American Wolves come down the ramp to observe, but then started jawjacking with Corino. This drew out Rhett Titus and Cliff Compton and they all started brawling. Soon Adrenaline Rush came out and attacked S.C.U.M. too.

Back in the ring, Coleman made a hot tag and just went bonkers. He hit a double clothesline from the top rope, back spin kicks, and and STO. Cedric recovered and hit rolling northern lights suplexes on Kyle for a two count. The men on the outside were still brawling.

Kyle got the better of an exchange with Cedric and hit a knockout knee to the face and chained into a arm breaker. Cedric was close to tapping before Coleman intervened. Fish retaliated against Coleman with kicks, suplexes and a falcon arrow. Kyle assisted with what looked like a Saito suplex.

After some general chaos, things got bad for Fish. Cedric hit him with Trouble in Paradise. Coleman put Fish on his shoulders and Cedric hit a double knee stomp to the back of his head followed by a death valley driver onto his knees. Kyle broke up the near fall. At this point, tons of security had arrived to break up the melee on the outside.

Cedric jumped over the top, landing on everybody on the outside. Kyle was the only man left standing. He tried to hit Coleman with a brainbuster, but Coleman kneed him in the head. Coleman set Kyle on the top for his standing top rope hurricanrana, but Fish grabbed him, allowing Kyle to hit a spinning hurricane DDT. They followed with Chasing the Dragon and Fish got the three count.

After the bell, it was a full-on brawl. S.C.U.M. attacked C&C who attacked the Wolves who attacked S.C.U.M. As the officials tried to break it up, the Wolves stared down ReDRagon.

CEDRIC: What are you doing out here, Davey? Both of you!?

DAVEY: Are you serious?

C&C had just lost out on obtaining the Tag Team Titles and they were royally pissed. Coleman dropped to his knees and waddled around while sticking out his chest to mock Davey.

COLEMAN: One time we’re going to get a title shot and ain’t no one going to be jumping in!

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India

17 Apr

January 2009: I embarked on a two-week, thousand-mile road trip of the American Southwest in August, 2009, snapping photos all along the way.

I began in Los Angeles where I tested out Pink's hot dogs (overrated), then headed to Disneyland for a fun day with Levi, Daniela and Levi's cousin's family. We made a brief stop at San Diego's Coronado Beach and the San Diego Zoo before driving east through Southern California to Joshua Tree National Park. We kept east to Phoenix where we ran into Jason Jones

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filming a piece for The Daily Show and some old friends passing through.

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US Congress Decides Astronomy Deserves $244 Million from National Science Foundation

15 Apr

The United States House and Senate have just released their versions of the FY 2013 appropriations bills for the National Science Foundation, one of America's most prominent scientific funding bodies. Both chambers of Congress are more or less in agreement that the NSF should be funded about $7.3 billion, which is an increase of approximately 4% over FY 2012 levels. According to the Senate Appropriations Committee report, “The Committee’s fiscal year 2013 recommendation renews its support for Federal long-term basic research that has the potential to be transformative to our economy and our way of life in the context of a Federal budget that is shrinking."

Of that $7.3 billion, about $5.9 billion is dedicated for research and related activities (The remainder goes to major research equipment, facilities construction and education.) and 4% of that is directed to astronomy research. The following justification and explanation for the astronomy appropriations comes directly from the Committee report:

Astronomy. -- The Committee recommends the full budget request of $244,550,000 for astronomical sciences in fiscal year 2013, of which $161,890,000 shall be used for infrastructure. The Committee welcomes the line item identification of pre-construction funds for future major MREFC

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[Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction] projects, including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the astrophysics decadal survey’s top ranked ground-based priority in the coming decade. This joint NSF-Department of Energy project will provide unprecedented views of the changing sky and will drive key advances in cyber-infrastructure and large-volume data management. The Committee provides funding at the request level in order to make progress towards a potential new start in a subsequent year, subject to the project meeting the necessary conditions for such action.

“The Committee notes that the Foundation has proposed a wide ranging review of the portfolio for investments in astronomy including optical astronomy facilities, radio astronomy facilities, and individual investigator grants. Although the overall budget request level for fiscal year 2013 proposed an increase for NSF of 4.8 percent over fiscal year 2012, astronomy infrastructure was proposed to be held constant in the fiscal year 2013 request. The Committee intends to review any proposed restructuring of the portfolio for astronomy to ensure balance among the competing programs, and that core infrastructure capabilities needed to preserve U.S. leadership and broad access for the community are preserved.

Radio Astronomy. -- United States-based astronomy facilities continue to make groundbreaking discoveries and conduct world-class scientific research. NSF should consider allocating adequate funding within the amounts provided to sustain operations at domestic radio astronomy facilities while transitioning to full operation of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

While 4% of the overall science budget may seem small, the National Science Foundation provides support for all frields of fundamental science and engineering, except for medical sciences (these are primarily handled by the National Institutes of Health). Also, this allocation typically does not fund space-based science missions, which fall under NASA's purview.

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Exposing the Myth That Scientists are "In It for the Money"

15 Apr

The principle of American democracy is rooted in the “marketplace of ideas,” a notion that public policies are best developed through the honest and open deliberation of a wide variety of ideas. But the “marketplace” has strained of late. Our national challenges have grown more complex and the voices opining on them more numerous. From health care to energy policy to net neutrality, resolving modern problems requires more than an application of philosophy – it demands scientific literacy and an understanding of our national scientific apparatus.

 

Unfortunately, instead of facilitating discourse there are many who are content to muddy the waters. One of the worst offenders is conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. During his June 22, 2011 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show he spoke once again on one of his “pet peeve issues,” climate change. Limbaugh, who has long rejected the consensus scientific conclusion that that Earth’s climate is changing and that human beings are responsible, was offering a new explanation for climate scientists’ behavior.

 

“They’ve been paid,” Limbaugh argued. “Their entire lifestyles, their standard of living depends on their grants that they get to conduct the studies, and they only get the money if they come up with the right result.”

 

One might be willing to dismiss such an inflammatory statement as isolated bloviation from one of media’s biggest loudmouths, if only it were an isolated incident. It is far from that. Similar statements have been made by authors, pundits, politicians, and even a handful of disgruntled scientists. In a speech to New Hampshire businessmen last August, Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry echoed Limbaugh’s remarks referencing “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”

 

Statements such as these are not only slanderous, they are dangerous. Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges of our generation. It promises to deliver a warmer climate, droughts, floods, food and water scarcity, rising sea levels, and the death of 25-50% of Earth’s species (just to name a few) if not properly mitigated.

 

It is for these reasons that the profoundly misleading assaults on scientists’ basic integrity are so worrisome. The need to restore public faith in our scientific institutions warrants a substantive clarification about both the roles scientists play in society and the actual manner in which their research is funded.

 

In general, there are two classes of scientist – public and private. Public climate scientists are employed by government institutions like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA’s premiere climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, explains how public scientists are compensated saying, “Our salaries do not depend on how much research the government funds. Government scientists get paid for working 40 hours week, regardless of how long they work.”

 

Furthermore, to prevent against politically motivated terminations public scientists receive considerable protection from being fired. In such an environment scientists have little to fear from publishing results that cut across the grain since neither their compensation nor their job security depends on it.

 

Private climate scientists, on the other hand, are often employed by universities and must actively seek their own research funding. One common source is America’s collection of federal science agencies. There are many, but one of the most prominent is the National Science Foundation, an agency which supports about 20% of all federally funded basic research conducted in US universities. Its funding process is typical of agencies of this kind, so it is worth examining its appropriations process in greater detail.

 

Scientists apply for research grants by first submitting a research proposal. According to NSF criteria, successful proposals must demonstrate that their prospective research be of high academic quality, have high and hopefully broad significance, and preferably be transformative. Proposals are merit-reviewed by a panel of independent experts in the field and the top submissions receive grants to continue their work. This process is highly competitive. Of the approximately 45,000 proposals received each year, the NSF only funds about 11,500.

One noteworthy observation is that a plausible alternative to the theory to human-driven climate change satisfies all of these criteria. According to the National Academy of Sciences, between 97% and 98% of climate scientists actively publishing in the field currently agree with the conclusion that global climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity. Clearly, a plausible alternative would constitute a great scientific advancement, one which would likely have ramifications beyond climate science itself. So not only are “climate skeptics” not penalized in the grant process, if their proposals demonstrate legitimate scientific merit they might actually receive preferential treatment.

 

There are other factors that weigh in a climate skeptic’s favor. First, any scientist who can debunk a scientific paradigm (as Einstein did with his general theory of relativity) in favor of a better theory will earn prestige and a likely place for his name in science textbooks. This is a huge incentive to challenge the status quo. Second, if a professor has tenure, then he needn’t fear reprisal from his employer for conducting controversial research. Third, because review panels are comprised of a broad selection of experts, one can expect a representative plurality of opinions to be held by appropriators, which mitigates consensus groupthink. Fourth, scientists are skeptical by nature. They assume their knowledge is incomplete and are always acting to refine it. Scientists will tell you that one of the most exciting events for them is when an experimental result completely defies theoretical expectation. It is in these moments that new truths are often revealed. Scientists yearn for these moments. They do not penalize the search for them.

 

The final point I’ll make about the public grant process is simple common sense. It’s functionally impossible for allocators to only fund “pro-climate change” research when the results of that research are unknown until it is conducted. And even if you suspect incoming research proposals must tacitly accept anthropogenic global climate change a priori, meta-publication data gathered by Skeptical Scientist, an organization dedicated to explaining peer reviewed climate change research, reveals that approximately half of climate research papers do not explicitly endorse the consensus opinion, but rather function primarily as fact-finding missions. Those missions in total have created the

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consensus opinion, but scientists did not have to assume it before receiving their funding.

 

The other method by which private scientists obtain research support is by courting private donors and corporations who have a vested interest in it. For lots of basic research, this process of pitching for funds is a huge hassle. As the Microsoft computer scientist and Turing Award winner Jim Gray once put it, “Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a prince.”

 

Except in certain cases the prince comes to you. Mitigating climate change requires a reorganization of large sectors of our economy. Consequently, corporations that stand to suffer financially in the transition have a strong incentive to spread disinformation themselves or fund others willing to do so.

 

In such cases, the exact opposite of Limbaugh’s argument is proven true. Scientists willing to research alternatives to anthropogenic climate change often receive funding because they reject the consensus opinion. In fact, research from the Global Warming Policy Foundation has found that in an analysis of 900 papers supporting climate change skepticism, 90% of the authors were linked to ExxonMobil.

 

As Dr. Hansen argues, “Perhaps, instead of questioning the motives of scientists, you should turn around and check the interests (motives) of the people who have pushed you to become so agitated.”

 

Once the public understands the true manner in which climate science is funded, it will ultimately need to ask itself which is more likely – that A) 97% of all active climate scientists have independently come together to collectively pull the wool over the world’s eyes and perpetrate the greatest scientific hoax of all time for unclear motives or B) moneyed interests like oil and coal companies who stand to lose profit in a world that addresses climate change are spreading doubt and disinformation as a means to forestall action.

 

Given the current state of media in the United States, the condition in which we find ourselves is not altogether surprising. Thinner margins have driven many newspapers and other news outlets to lay off dedicated science reporters. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, ratings reign supreme and viewers are more likely to tune into conflict and controversy than a nuanced discussion of the facts. Even when climate science is given the coverage it deserves, the media will often mistake journalistic balance with “hearing all sides of an issue.” Granting climate skeptics equal air time with members of the 97% majority is akin to presenting the opinions of an Auschwitz survivor alongside someone who argues the Holocaust never happened.

 

Ultimately, it will fall upon scientists to lift the haze of misunderstanding that surrounds their work. They will need to be more vocal in communicating not just the science, but the process of practicing science. Only when the public gains an understanding of the scientific process will the baseless claim of Limbaugh and his sympathizers be exposed be exposed as the myth that it is.

 

 

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Gone Caving

13 Apr

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That Costs Jobs

13 Apr

Many conservatives offer a constant refrain with respect to environmental protections and greenhouse gas mitigation measures: "We can't do it,

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because it will cost Americans jobs."

 

Rail lines buckle halting transport.
Water temperature rise so nuclear plants can't cool.
People get sick with asthma, unable to go to work.

Many examples with the refrain: THAT COSTS JOBS

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Rock Nest Panorama from Mars

9 Apr

Here comes another Martian panorama! Behold one of the highest resolution pictures of the Red Planet yet, created from over 900 image containing over one billion pixels Set near the based of Mt. Sharp, the central peak of a large crater the Curiosity rover is now exploring, is an ares called Rock Nest

 

This is my very first three-dimensional panorama. Grab your red and blue glasses!

This image of Gale crater comes from the Curiosity rover.

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Five kilometers in the background you'll see Mount Sharp, the crater's central mountain. According to APOD, "the layered lower slopes of Mount Sharp, formally known as Aeolis Mons, are a future destination for Curiosity."

pano-button-gale-crater

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FOIA - We Are Making Progress

10 Mar

This is final part of a 5 part series on the government’s silence of silence and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Parts 1 through 4 can and should be read first:

Part 1: The Kingston Disaster
Part 2: The Government’s Silence of Science
Part 3: Freedom of Information Act to the Rescue?
Part 4: The Obama Failure

In brief, these articles describe how scientific research gathered by the United States government is often withheld from the general public, a type of action that can quite literally put lives at risk.  The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed to allow public access to these records, but both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have so far failed to live up to the promise of the act.

But while there have been substantial challenges with gaining access to important public information, it’s not all doom and gloom.  The fact that we actually have a Freedom of Information Act with an appeals process and judicial review is significant.  The Act continues to have strong support in the NGO community.  A FOIAonline portal has been built with the goal of eventually becoming a one-stop shop for public information.  The Obama administration has taken a strong positive step at Data.gov to “increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.”  This initiative has already saved on infrastructure costs.

And we have had disclosure successes.  In 2008 the United States improved the Consumer Product Safety Act and created a searchable database for consumer information.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center and EPA have done an admirable job of reporting on historical climate variables like temperature, precipitation and drought.  The US Embassy in Beijing has made electronic reports of air quality public when the Chinese government refused to do so.  The federal ENERGY STAR program labels the energy footprint of appliances to aid consumers in making more energy efficient purchases.

Inside federal agencies, it would appear that some progress is being made.  In 2013 UCS released a report entitled Grading Government Transparency in which they examined the ability of scientists at federal agencies to speak freely about their work.  They found that many agencies’ media policies “have shown significant improvement since 2008.”  In particular they note that scientists can now more easily apply their right to express personal views provided they make clear that they are not speaking for their agency.

This right was made considerably easier to exercise when on November 13, 2012, after an arduous 14 year journey, Congress unanimously passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.  This act, for the first time, provides specific legal protection to scientists and other federal employees who expose censorship or suppression of federal research.  According to Celia Wexler of the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS), “We hope that this law will begin a process to change the culture of federal agencies when it comes to whistleblowers. People who protect the public from unsafe drugs, tainted food, defective products, and environmental hazards should not fear for their jobs when they speak up for safety and scientific integrity.”

Since then, other steps have been taken to make it easier for the public to obtain government information.  On May 9, 2013 President Obama issued an executive order making open and machine readable data the new default for government information.  Citing examples like weather data and the Global Positioning System (GPS), the president argued that making federal data freely available “can help fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery - all of which improve Americans’ lives.”

Then, on February 25, 2014 the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act.  This amendment to the Freedom of Information Act would create a single, free website from which all FOIA requests could be made.  When requests are granted, federal agencies would have to release the information in an electronic and publicly accessible format.  When requests are denied, the appeals process would be streamlined.  The amendment also forces federal agencies to take greater responsibility for their FOIA obligations.

As we see, the system can work.  But there will always be disagreements between the public and federal agencies regarding which information should be disclosed through FOIA and which should be withheld for security reasons.  When public actors feel their claims have been rejected unjustly, they can always consider seeking subpoenas.

Absent that, there are other options at their disposal to extract greater value out of the information that is public.  Private technology companies can offer tools for the sharing and analysis of data.  Librarians can play a more prominent role in gathering and organizing documents.

When the information being disseminated is incorrect, knowledgeable scientists should take action.  They can start issue blogs and connect with members of the media.  Local groups like city councils rarely hear from scientists, so researchers can have an outsized impact in regional issues.  As members of one of the most respected professions, scientists would do well to build relationships with congressional representatives or their science staffers.  Failure to act means allowing dissembling voices fill the vacuum.

With respect to government disclosure, as with most things, the situation is neither entirely good nor bad.  But it is hard to deny that at times we Americans live in a perverse, ironic ecosystem - one in which taxpayers fund government research designed to inform and protect, only to have that same government deny us the results and claim it’s for our protection.  We must continue to hold our government accountable, push for transparency where appropriate and never yield to private interests who would use our ignorance against us.

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