Tuesday, 9 Oct 2001

WASHINGTON, D.C.

This morning’s task is to write a thank-you letter to the National Academy of Sciences for the opportunity to speak at a meeting held last week. The U.S. Congress created the National Academy of Sciences over 130 years ago to advise the government in scientific and technical matters. This summer, the NAS released a report evaluating the cost and efficacy of fuel economy standards that have been in place since the oil crisis of the 1970s. Last week, I flew to Washington, D.C., to present the perspective of the Union of Concerned Scientists on the automobile industry’s response to that report.

After the fuel economy report was released this summer, two automobile companies went behind closed doors at the NAS and claimed that the results of the report violated the laws of thermodynamics. This is no small allegation; the laws of thermodynamics are fundamental scientific principles that are universally accepted as unbreakable — not because it would be wrong to do so, but because it is simply impossible to do so. In the end, the automakers backed off of their claims and I believe most people at the meeting saw that the issues raised by the automobile industry were matters of judgment and opinion, rather than scientific errors that needed to be corrected.

This event illustrates one of the challenges of working at the intersection of science and policy, as the Union of Concerned Scientists does every day. UCS was founded on the principle that sound science should play a key role in the decisions made by government at all levels. Our goal is to gather the best scientific knowledge and insights on any given issue and then bring that information to policymakers, so that they can make the best possible decisions with the best possible information.

However, science can also be used to distort the political process. In the case of the NAS study on fuel economy, some automakers were unhappy with results that indicated that within 10 to 15 years, it would be possible and cost-effective to make cars and trucks that averaged 40 miles per gallon. Since the auto industry disagreed with the results of th
e study, they tried to undermine the science behind the findings — an age-old tactic. I would characterize this as “bad” science, using incorrect or misleading statements about the facts and methods behind a study to discredit it for political reasons.

In this case, the tactic may fail. My presentation and that of a colleague pointed to problems in the arguments put forth by the automobile industry. We also drew attention to technologies identified in a recent UCS report, “Drilling in Detroit“, that could help get a fleet of cars and trucks averaging 40 mpg or more on the road in the near future.

I am still waiting to hear how the NAS will respond to the issues raised at last Friday’s meeting. My hope is that they summarize the concerns and note that their findings on fuel economy are sound. The report produced by the NAS committee will still be subject to public discussion and debate, but that is how things should work. Many of the issues in the report revolve around judgement as much as science, and both are at their best and are most useful to the policy process when left open to public scrutiny.