Friday, February 13, 2009

Science and Public Policy

I scooted from the OS Bridge planning meeting, which I will blog about separately, to this ISEPP lecture at Portland's main downtown theater, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where Dr. Susan Haak was already in full swing with her slide presentation. I managed to sit towards the front, with other Wanderers.

Susan teaches law, coming from a background in epistemology (a good word for clearing any room). Her focus is the scientific endeavor, of which she is rightly proud, and yet using "scientific" as an honorific, a tool for inspiring deference, is one of the social problems bogging us down, including at the Supreme Court level.

The ethics of science are coming under increasing strain because of the huge sums involved. The open, sharing aspect of the work, so critical to keeping the enterprise on track, is up against the will to hunker down around intellectual properties of an undisclosed nature, a "we have it and you don't" ethic, running contrary to overall productivity.

Bruce Adams had some excellent perspective on this, which he raised at the Heathman dinner right after. He works in chip fabrication, is currently crazy busy moving two laser labs in a stormy business climate. How do we recruit new talent to these industries when the greatest technical achievements, the most celebrated romantic breakthroughs, are wrapped in secrecy for legal reasons?

In the old days, a young person could dream herself or himself into the future by reading realistic accounts of airplane flight, and enter on the path to becoming a pilot or aircraft engineer as a hobbyist or amateur, feeling equipped with the knowledge of where this might lead. The state of the art was relatively "open source".

Bruce worries high technology, esoteric to begin with because of its invisibility, its super smallness, is self limiting, self strangling, because when it gets really good, it becomes inaccessible. People can no longer follow the action and become beauticians instead. The culture fails to replicate itself. As Susan pointed out towards the end of her slides, there's no guarantee against backsliding. We're capable of losing ground.

I sat next to Bruce at the dinner and shared my "Portland as Toontown" meme. The story here is that one of Portland's high technology outputs is visualizations, animations in particular, which feed the imagination with well-informed disclosures.

Children grow up on cartoons, such that schooling may feel like a sudden deprivation, a removal of oxygen (a suffocating decrease in bandwidth). We need to see what we're talking about, from the chip to the cloud (as in "cloud computing").

Open source "code" (as in "software code") is insufficient, though necessary, is only a part of the solution. O'Reilly works to fill provide some of the rest of what's needed with Make: magazine.

The hardware itself needs more public appreciation (I'm agreeing with Bruce in other words).

Medical science is a good example of where these cartoons apply, and yet most of the budget for such animations goes towards marketing, where realism and technical content are not priorities, only get in the way. Inspiring desire through motivational psychology is not the same thing as teaching science or its ethics.

Joe, our practicing psychiatrist, had some related concerns. If the science doesn't really corroborate the practice of giving highly psychoactive drugs to young people as a "preventative" (a controversial tendency pushed by industry), will the flood of "scientific" papers dressing up the idea drown out these physicians' concerns.

Psychiatry is a difficult area and the best and the brightest in that field do not have a uniform view, are not in lockstep. The scientific enterprise might suggest a go slow approach, simply on the basis of the lack of consensus.

But with huge pressure from big pharma, the manufacture of consent might proceed forthwith. Children get to be guinea pigs, woo hoo.

Susan is quite familiar, from her involvement in actual cases, with how science becomes corrupted. This counters and tempers her pride in the human animal. Our capacity for selflessness and patience is offset by our rush to cash in, no matter how prematurely.