Lee Fikes, no-nonsense president and CEO of Dallas’ Leland Fikes Foundation, is alarmed by the loss of scientific integrity at all levels of American government. What passes for science, he is convinced, is too often really propaganda, signifying nothing but the views of the zealous or the cynical.
To remedy a situation growing ever more dire, he is touting the virtues, as an inaugural board member, of a new organization called Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA). This is a supremely sophisticated effort designed to gather pertinent information about the positions on scientific issues taken by candidates for public office, then make that data available on a Wiki website open to all SEA members (there are no fees or dues) who want to contribute articles or tapes. Accuracy will be monitored by other members, and anyone who abuses the system thenceforth will be barred from it.
The SHARP Network (Science, Health and Related Policies) is the second prong in this approach. Here a website will offer top science and health policy news from around the country, including analysis by scientists who serve as SEA directors or on the board of advisors where sit Doctors. Roger Unger and Ellen Vitetta, stars of Southwestern Medical School. This will not be a passive place, where items sit for months, growing more stale with every hit. The site will be updated early each morning and provide a vital resource for people eager to know the latest in science but unable to find it now in any central, carefully sifted location.
The aim of the enterprise is the elections of 2008 and, of course, beyond. By next year SEA expects to be ready, not only for tracking candidates and their views on scientific issues but also for attracting scientists themselves to run for office. Imagine how helpful it would have been in considering the energy bill that just passed the Senate if there were in that body a cadre of scientists who could tell us the true importance of wind power or ethanol (from corn versus sugar cane versus other sources); the possibility of sequestration (permanent storage) of carbon dioxide; the viability of nuclear power as well as realistic options for dealing with the waste it produces.
It doesn’t always work. Remember the spectacle of former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a heart surgeon, assessing the case of Terri Schiavo with nothing to go on but family videos? Even so, solid scientific opinion, within Congress itself, could be enormously helpful in evaluating questions such as President Bush’s new stem cell initiative.
Especially, SEA is determined to recruit scientists to run for local school boards. Then controversies about what is to be taught in science classes would have informed voices to help guide these public decisions.
SEA is on a strict timetable, working now to establish SHARP Wiki and Network by the end of the year, also ten student chapters on university campuses with ten more to follow in 2008. This summer should see the completion of a campaign training curriculum with political workshops to follow this year and next. Grand Challenges, a book compiling short papers on critical issues by Nobel Laureates and other respected scientists, will be issued next spring and promoted on blogs and podcasts with an eye on the election.
Lee Fikes and his compatriots at SEA mean business. They believe, as SEA’s chairman, physicist Henry Kelly, put it, that scientists and engineers “have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the public debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research. SEA’s mission is “to restore integrity” to decisions of national, state and local governments, so that they will allow science to be scientific. It sounds simple, and it is. It is also disturbingly necessary.