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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Review: Advice and Dissent

I finished reading the book Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena, by Joel Primack and Frank von Hippel, a little over a month ago*. It is probably the driest book I have ever found absolutely enthralling. Primack and Hippel are both respected physicists, and they shared the American Physical Society's Forum Award in 1977 for their work on Advice and Dissent (the book was published in 1974). What Primack and Hippel do is essentially analyze the role of scientific and technical advisors in the American government through a series of case studies. Although all the case studies surround issues from well before my time (for example: supersonic transport, antiballistic missile systems, and the banning of cyclamates), I found the analysis and power structures involved were still very much relevant today. Primack and Hippel, while they were clearly not neutral on the issues involved, presented their arguments lucidly and concisely with exhaustive lists of references.

As I said, the specific case studies are all fairly dated (although the details are nonetheless quite interesting. I think I would go so far as to say that Nixon was, in fact, something of a crook), but the issues that are discussed in their context translates well into our present age. While I highly recommend that anyone interested in technical and scientific expertise in the realm of public policy (and, considering that my friend Paul is starting a graduate program in public policy at MIT this September (congratulations, again!), I know of at least one person reading this who is) should pick up a copy of Advice and Dissent to get the authors' full discussion and contextual development, I thought I would at least reflect with my own thoughts on two of the most salient issues that were highlighted.

The first major issue is the unequal power structure between a science advisor and politician. The politician is in no way bound to listen to the advice of the advisor, while the advisor is bound by confidentiality in both implicit and explicit forms. Explicitly this takes the form of directly classifying all reports and experimental findings of the advisor as confidential. The politicians are then free to claim scientific support for their position, regardless of what the findings actually are. Implicit confidentiality arises from the fact that if the advisor endeavours to make their own opinion known publicly (in colloquial terms: kick up a stink) they often find themselves dismissed (see here for a modern example) or, in the case of consultants without official appointments to begin with, ignored in future calls for advisory panels**. Although these points seem obvious in retrospect, I found the discussion nevertheless quite illuminating. I always assumed that much of the problems of modern policy decisions lay in a lack of scientific advisors or inadequately qualified appointees. Although I think an advisory lack remains an issue, the institutional power disparity is a much deeper problem and intrinsic to the current implementation of scientific advisory boards.

The second major issue was actually one which shook my preconceptions much harder. Whereas the institutional gagging of technical advisors did little to disrupt any preconceived notions of mine, the authors also presented numerous instances of regulatory failure by the institutions whose very existence is designed to protect citizens. Long-time readers (and those privy to personal political discussions with me) are aware of my general trust in bureaucratic institutions and regulatory boards (like the FDA). The FDA (and the HPFB in Canada) are mandated to protect the consumer from unsafe food and medical products. While I have previously noted major risks in consumer protection through restrictions of agency powers over certain classes of products (like the natural products debacle), I generally felt that agencies like the FDA, if adequately funded and left to their own devices, were generally competent and interested primarily in consumer protection. In the case of the construction of nuclear power generators, they even document how the task of ensuring generator safety was given over to the same entity in charge of building the plants in the first place (does that not sound familiar to the off-shore drilling situation we have now?).

Thus, while Primack and Hippel thankfully don't launch into any sort of nonsensical libertarian screeds about how regulatory agencies should be abolished and we should let the free market take control, they carefully outline and document numerous examples of institutional apathy, obstruction, and manipulative changes to regulations that confounded the mandates of protective agencies. Their analysis is nuanced and realistic, calling not for the abolishment of governmental regulatory agencies (after all, the resources of those institutions are usually necessary to carry out the appropriate safety tests and enforce regulations - something that we could easily invest even more money in), but for an increased openness to information and the necessity of what they call 'citizen scientists' to become involved and active in policy decisions. It is unrealistic to expect a cadre of citizen scientists looking out for the common good to spontaneously arise, however. One suggestion introduced in the book is the institutional backing of universities through local project courses. I think that is a fantastic idea, but one which would need greater systematic support, particularly when it comes to disseminating any findings.

In the end, Advice and Dissent helped me revise some of my own naive political views, and strongly argues in a manner largely free of ideological overtones (a refreshing attribute for political discourse) for the importance of open discourse between politicians and experts, and for independence on the part of advisors. Unfortunately, I cannot help but notice that this book is 36 years old and our society, in many ways, has actually regressed (the dependence of biochemical drug testers on the pharmaceutical companies themselves for funding is one such glaring example of systemic hamstringing of any sort of unbiased testing and regulation). In a complex world in which it is virtually impossible for anyone to have appropriate expertise (or even competence) in all areas of life, how we manage expert input in the realm of public policy is an extremely important aspect of political life that is rarely even acknowledged. Advice and Dissent thus stands out as a unique form of political analysis, and one I would highly recommend.

* I usually prefer to get reviews written in a more timely fashion, as the book is therefore fresher in my mind. This book lent itself to more careful analysis, however, which meant I have gradually developed this review over the last month instead of just sitting down and writing it in one go.

** As a side note, I thought I would also point out that the authors do also occasionally slip into somewhat dated narration, most notably on page 106 when it is noted in reference to this implicit gagging of advisors:
“This gives rise to the apparently common situation where an advisor conserves his effectiveness like a beautiful girl her virginity - until no one is interested anymore."
Although I imagine such a simile might elicit a wink and chuckle back in the days of the book's first publication, such a mysoginistic comparison is only humorous in the present day through the context of “I cannot believe they wrote and published that”.