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Deutch notes tensions between politics and science in Tech Day talk

The day's theme was "When Worlds Collide: Science, Politics and Power in the 21st Century." The final speaker at the annual Technology Day program in Kresge Auditorium Saturday morning, Institute Professor John M. Deutch, knows the topic intimately, having served as director of energy research in the then newly-formed Department of Energy under President Carter and on the White House Scientific and Technology Advisory Boards under Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

A classic example of the worlds colliding occurred during the 1978 gasoline crisis, said Deutch (S.B. 1961, Ph.D.), whose lecture topic was "The Struggle to Give Scientific Advice in Washington."

He recalled that while Congress was considering a subsidy for farmers to develop gasohol, a mixture of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol made from grain, the scientific community was convinced that the policy was unsound.

Asked by Deutch to research the topic, the Energy Research Advisory Board confirmed that more petroleum would be used to distill and ferment corn used in the process than would be replaced by the ethanol. But the political establishment attacked their report.

Deutch discussed the issue with Carter, who grasped the technical issues immediately. The president understood the political implications as well.

"He pointed out to me that there were 10 Democratic senators up for reelection" in midwestern and western states in 1980, Deutch recalled. "Each one of those senators felt that the result on the tax credit for corn used for ethanol was important in their election, and accordingly, his administration would favor tax credits." All of the senators were defeated, he said, while the tax credits are still in place.

Deutch noted that government decision makers are likely to be lawyers, politicians, businesspeople "or, even more unfortunately," graduates of Harvard. He observed during his government service (which also included a stint as head of the Central Intelligence Agency), that scientific advisers' influence diminished as they insisted on telling the president about their own needs.

"Decision makers who seek advice want individuals to work on their problem, not to use the advisory position as a platform for special pleading," he said.


Deutch urged MIT to expand its educational goals. "We should be educating our students not only to be effective participants in providing independent technical integrated advice to decision makers, but also to be those decision makers themselves, also to be able to take on the much more complex political problem of being a decision maker and evaluating advice that is coming to them," he said.

He concluded by saying, "We at MIT have a tradition of public service, but in fact, I think we're placing too little emphasis on providing advice to federal, state and local governments. Much more should be done here in our education program and in the way we conduct our business to encourage people to provide this kind of advice and to explain its great importance to better government for the people of this country."

The other speakers and their topics were Ronald G. Prinn (Sc.D. 1971), the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, whose topic was "From Complex Science to Contentious Policy: Lessons From Global Warming" [video]; Shirley Malcom, director of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science ("Generation Next: What Do They Really Need to Know and How Will We Help Them Learn It?" [video]); and author Daniel Charles, a former Knight Journalism Fellow ("The Story Is Mightier Than the Data" [video]).

Afternoon panel discussions focused on "The Future of Engineering Education," "MIT Research that Will Shape Our Future," and "Science and the Spin Doctors: The Use and Misuse of Science in the Political Realm."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 2002.

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