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Contents | Data for Science and Society: The Second National Conference on Scientific and Technical Data | U.S. National Committee for CODATA | National Research Council Chapter 14: Congressional Keynote Address: Using Scientific and Technical Data in the National Interest | Data for Science and Society: The Second National Conference on Scientific and Technical Data | U.S. National Committee for CODATA | National Research Council

U.S. National Committee for CODATA
National Research Council
Improving the Data Policy Framework


Congressional Keynote Address:
Using Scientific and Technical Data in the National Interest

The Honorable Rush Holt

     It is very good to be here. I am one of those relatively rare creatures--a research scientist in the House of Representatives. There are two of us: Vernon Ehlers from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I comprise the bipartisan physics caucus.

     I don't need to go into the discussion of how I have come to represent central New Jersey with five counties--a well-educated, research-intensive part of the country--but suffice it to say that I have been interested in Congress and politics for many decades, first serving as a Senate page back in the early 1960s, and in the early 1980s I was a Congressional Fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science program.

     I also was a fellow of the American Physical Society, and I remember orientation week when we had briefings from all manner of people. It was probably our first day when a briefer from the Office of Technology Assessment, rest its soul, spoke to us and said, "You have to understand that here in Washington facts are negotiable," and we squirmed nervously in our seats wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. The next day a briefer from, I believe, the Congressional Research Service said, "You have to understand that here in Washington we treat facts differently." The third day we began to get the message from still another speaker, who said, "You understand that here in Washington perceptions are facts."

     It certainly got me thinking about the relationship between science and politics and about the nature of science itself. It was about the time that I read a delightful essay by Lewis Thomas in which he called science "the shrewdest maneuver" for understanding how the world works. He certainly could turn a phrase, but this says a lot about what science is--not sacred, it is a maneuver, but it is the shrewdest maneuver that humans have ever devised.

     I was impressed also by I.I. Rabi's account of how he became a scientist. Rabi, a Nobel prize-winning physicist and adviser to Presidents, was asked why he was such a success as a scientist. He said, "My parents made me one in spite of themselves. In the neighborhood where I grew up all the parents valued education, and after school each day all of my childhood friends' parents would ask them what they learned in school today, but my parents were different. They asked if I asked a good question today."

     I thought over the years about the nature of science, and I have not come up with a better definition of what it is than the process by which we ask questions in a way that can be answered empirically and verifiably. Of course, this could lead to a discourse on science education and what it is we are trying to teach children and adults, but I would instead like to use this as an opportunity to talk a little bit about facts and data and how we answer questions.

     For amusement, let me begin with two lists that I have written down. I don't claim any great originality here. Over the years I have assembled what characterizes science and what characterizes politics.

     Science is the system for developing knowledge or developing a way to ask questions that can be answered empirically. Let me also say that science is self-correcting. It is open--internationally open, as well as personally open. It seeks to use a common language, usually mathematics. It seeks reproducibility. It is, and every practicing scientist understands this but few outsiders do, tentative. It is impersonal in the sense that there is a procedure that is followed independent of the person following it.

     Science seeks generalization so that it is seeking laws that would apply throughout all time and all space. It calls for a certain amount of patience, and this is related to the idea that it is a tentative, slowly converging process. It is cumulative. It is based on the idea that there is progress, that the future is not exactly like the past.

     Politics, on the other hand, is local, immediate, and personal. Of course, there is the famous quote by Tip O'Neill that all politics is local, but it is also very immediate. It deals with immediate problems. There are no new findings. It is not a progress toward a definite answer, but instead a balancing of interests. We can say also that it is personal because who says it makes a difference. Representatives, I find, in Congress generally--and this is understandable--don't like to commit themselves or, to put it another way, to commit their constituents to inescapable situations.

     Politics is certainly not egalitarian. The chairman has the last word; so in that case there is no peer review. Whereas in science one might say, "Let the chips fall where they may," where the chips fall is what politics is all about. So we might say that science is devoid of values, whereas politics is based on values. In fact, it is the representation of values, it is values made practical. And certainly in the political world the situation is not independent of the observing agents.

     This leads to some interesting questions because most members of the general public and their representatives in Congress (because Congress is, after all, very representative) have some fundamental misunderstandings, I think, about the process of science. They all value the fruits of science, and they think that scientists must be awfully smart people because the people that they knew in school who became scientists presumably were smart. However, there is very little appreciation of this idea that all that we are trying to do is answer questions empirically and verifiably.

     Let me illustrate with a couple of examples that I think suggest the lack of appreciation of the process. One of my goals is to try to defend the process of science. I was startled by a piece of legislation that came out in the Omnibus Appropriations bill at the end of 1998, shortly before I was elected to Congress. Actually it came about shortly before I took office, but after I was elected, in that flurry of appropriations activity. This bill was intended to open science, and since the law has been put into regulations now, it makes all federally funded data that support some public law or policy accessible to anyone under the Freedom of Information Act. At one time it was known as the Shelby Amendment. It was introduced in backroom discussions without any public debate, with no representation from the scientific community. It is ostensibly a piece of "sunshine legislation," but it was concocted in the dark of night. It is drawing protests from some in the scientific community, and I think some scientists are feeling a bit anxious about it.

     The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued the regulations, which are now in effect. OMB, I think, did a good job implementing a bad law, but the regulations don't adequately limit the damage that could be brought about by this ill-conceived legislation. I see four major problems, and I should begin by saying that George Brown recognized these before anyone else did. The late Representative George Brown had been, for the past couple of decades, the best friend that science had in Washington--someone who understood the process of science better than anyone else in town, probably even people who work in this building. He immediately introduced legislation to have this law repealed, and following his death I took up that legislation. I think some of the problems are the following. This legislation can force researchers to breach the confidentiality of their subjects, especially with studies of human subjects. It is an infringement of intellectual property, and it can force the release of data before researchers gain the benefits of their work or, more to the point, before the data are in a shape where society can derive benefit from them. This legislation creates an opportunity for the harassment of scientists and for the politicization of science. I need only point to the case in 1991 when R.J. Reynolds, citing the Georgia Open Records Act, filed a legal action to obtain data from a study showing that 6-year-olds could recognize Joe Camel. Reynolds was not interested in the process of science; it was interested in harassing scientists. I could point to similar examples from the National Rifle Association, and you could imagine any number of organizations that might be very nervous if they feel that research is getting a little too close for comfort. Finally, I think that this legislation may impose a significant administrative burden on institutions.

     I could be wrong. It may be that none of those problems will come to pass. Some scientists tell me that they are comfortable with this law, but I will be watching carefully, and I expect that on all of those counts we will find real trouble, perhaps not affecting all researchers, but affecting too many in too sensitive places that we as a society will not be comfortable with this legislation. If I am wrong and there is no squawking, I will willingly withdraw my bill to repeal the amendment. We will wait to see, and I look forward to hearing from you about it.

     Another issue that you have addressed today deals with the protection of databases. I think this is legislation that has been concocted with little or no appreciation of how science is done. I don't need to go into the details of it because you have been over, I assume, a couple of the bills that are before Congress now and the arguments for and against.

     I just don't understand why this is necessary and, secondly, I don't understand how anyone can think that factual data should be protectable. That is not in the public interest, regardless of what some other countries may think. We have to act on our own because facts are truly neither negotiable nor protected. The way they are presented and the way they are used to deal with public issues, of course, might be negotiable and might be protected, but we have to protect the idea that facts are real and that data are what we use to answer questions verifiably.

     I think we are left with the idea that facts are opinions that survive. Scientists understand the provisional nature of their data and of what we use as facts. We are quite comfortable living with that provisional sense. Those of you who follow the literature in physics know that over the past century or so, the values of the speed of light have again and again, as refined techniques provide better and better measurements of this speed c, fallen outside the old brackets of previous values. We understand that there is a provisional sense in which we do these things; there are degrees of definitiveness.

     Clearly, there is a difference between our understanding of evolution, and the data that go into devising this major organizing principle, and concepts of what we used to call cold fusion. I think this is now called "chemically assisted nuclear processes." There is a difference in the degree of definitiveness of our understanding of these things. As Peter Medawar said, "Details in science can stand incorrect for decades because no one thought to check them, but the major organizing principles are not easily overturned and errors in them are rapidly recognized when the data are apparent."

     We need to protect the ability to get out these data. In terms of I.I. Rabi's discussion of what science is all about, what we want to do is protect the process so that we end up with the ability for anyone, not just big names in the field, but any obscure patent clerk--like Einstein--to be able to answer a question with data and not just assert the answer.

Copyright 2001 the National Academy of Sciences