Talking science, decision-making and the Green Revolution with Dr. Roger Pielke Jr.

Sep 14, 2012

Field Notes is a regular feature by Harvest Public Media, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

For this week’s Field Notes, Harvest Public Media's Abbie Fentress Swanson spoke with Dr. Roger Pielke about science, decision-making and the Green Revolution.

Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. is only in his early forties, but he has already published two books and dozens of articles on climate change, innovation, science and the Olympics, and the human and economic impacts of tornadoes.

I caught up with Pielke, who teaches environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in Columbia, Mo., after he spoke to university professors about how to effectively engage consumers, members of Congress and other policymakers on issues related to food production.

Abbie Fentress Swanson: Thanks for talking with me, Dr. Pielke, Jr. First, tell me what your book, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, is about and what you talked with this morning’s group about.

Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr.: I talk about different ways that scientists can engage the public and decisions in highly politicized contests that includes situations that involve food -- like animal welfare, eating meat versus vegetarians, local farms versus corporate farms. And what I presented was a way for scientists to empower decision-makers without engaging in overt advocacy for a particular course of action. The way you do that, in a nutshell, is you give people a wide set of options. I always use the example of the travel websites like Expedia or Orbitz where you go there to find out, ‘What are my choices.’ You don’t go there for them to tell you where to go. And by empowering decision-makers, whether they’re consumers or members of Congress, scientists can serve a very important role in helping decision-makers to understand what the scope of choice they have is and the consequences of those choices. Sometimes they can even expand, create choices where they weren’t understood before, and in that manner empower the decision-making process to better realize its objectives. When experts do that they are stepping back from being overt advocates … there’s obviously no shortage of groups in society trying to tell decision-makers or the public what to do. What we don’t have are a lot of intuitions that tell people what they could do.

Which debates are scientists getting pulled into these days?

One of the things that’s characteristic of our time that’s maybe different than decades ago is that more and more issues have a scientific or a technical component to it. It could be food, it could be climate, it could be energy, it could be health, it could be international relations, it could be terrorism. The list goes on and on. And maybe there was a time in the past when we could debate and discuss these issues without necessarily having a need for experts or expert input but those days are long gone. So we see more and more the presence of claims about science, claims about expertise, but also the participation of experts in our political debates. 

Are any of those debates happening now in the presidential race?

A core issue that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are making statements about and scientific claims about are climate change and energy. Climate change is an interesting topic because it’s not something that people feel directly – it occurs over many decades -- and so we have to rely on the authority of science to first identify it as a problem and it very much has devolved to an issue about, ‘Who do you trust? Who is speaking the truth on this issue?’ And it turns out while Obama and Romney have very different views on who to trust and what the science says on climate change, they have evolved to having very similar views on energy policy. Both are big fans of American fossil fuel resources. Both are opposed to US making big commitments in the international arena. So it’s a very good example of how practical politics sometimes leads to places that maybe disagreements on science you wouldn’t expect them to.

Besides talking about your book The Honest Broker today, you also presented some fascinating ideas on the Green Revolution. Break them down for us.

The Green Revolution refers to many different things to many people. It’s almost like an ink blot. But what I have critiqued … was this view that the Green Revolution was this event that occurred in the 1960s … where there were massive increases in crop productivity, particularly in the developing world, and those increases in productivity held off a global famine, a great disaster, that was projected to occur. This particular view of the Green Revolution holds that science, scientific investments were the key to saving hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of people from famine. If you actually take a look at the history, it’s number one, a lot more complicated than that, and number two, the story that we tell ourselves about the Green Revolution today actually privileges science and investments in science over many of the other aspects of the innovation process that arguably were just as important, maybe more important in the 1960s. And at the core of my critique is that the story of this oncoming famine in the 1970s was never true to begin with and so the fundamental basis of this mythology we hold about the role of science in food production has some troubling aspects when you start unwrapping the issue.

And why should we be interested in unpacking this now?

Right now in the United States and globally, policymakers are struggling with the issue of economic growth and jobs. We have high unemployment and it turns out the way that the economy grows and the way that we are going to create new jobs in the future is through innovation. Innovation means developing new markets, expanding the size of the economy, doing things differently, getting more from less. Then that leads to the question: How does innovation actually occur? And we only have a few stories we tell ourselves about innovation and they usually go back to the same small set. And among them is the Green Revolution. And if we don’t understand what the Green Revolution was or how it was that we innovated in agriculture, we’re apt to draw wrong lessons going forward … because if we’re going to get out of the hole that we have dug ourselves in our current economy then we’d better understand the past.