Policy as affected by science

Right now, as I write these words, the trajectory of future policy on nuclear energy is being altered by the science of an element called Zirconium. That’s because the spent fuel rods of the Number 2 nuclear reactor at Japan’s Fukushima power plant have lost their water shielding and there is now the possibility that their cladding, Zirconium, will catch fire with catastrophic results.

Science has a way of catching up with policy very suddenly, because being very firmly rooted in reality (we hope!), ground truth can render existing policy moot in an instant. In contrast, policy, rooted in the politics of the moment, often pushes very hard against science, but inevitably loses out when scientific reality pushes back–a Tsunami can moot a policy on sea-wall height.

As a scientist, I’m not in favor of a Technocracy (actually a political movement that existed here in the US in the early 20th century). I’m quite comfortable with the market-based western democracy form of government that has been the norm here in the States. On the other hand, I would like to see policies better informed by science.

How to get there?

The current Obama administration has tried the approach of appointing very high achieving scientists to top-level leadership positions both in the Cabinet (Secretary of Energy Chu is a Nobel laureate) and in the White House. I’m not sure that’s enough.

The problem is that until science rears up and enforces reality upon the polity (these black swan events are often disasters), it’s often quite politically convenient for factions to deny science–arguing that since scientific consensus is constantly evolving (we don’t believe that the Earth is at the center of the Solar System anymore), any group of scientists offering advice to policy makers are just one more special interest group. Just another version of the K-Street lobbyist.

I’ll stay away here from Climate Change, but instead return to nuclear power. The use of nuclear fission as a method to generate electric power is both attractive and fraught with complex dangers for nations–particularly those with limited access to fossil fuels. The science of nuclear fission on the contrary is quite simple.

Problems arise however as a result of the scientific truth: highly enriched nuclear fuel rods will continue to emit heat without cooling and that heat can, under the right circumstances damage and melt-away fuel rod cladding. Returning to Zirconium, its melting point is 1852 degrees Centigrade. Above that point, we have problems.

Hence, the science overtakes the policy when the temperature of the nuclear fuel exceeds the melting point of Zirconium. At that point, the scientist is not another special interest group. Actually the scientist becomes an oracle of sorts, advising the decision-maker on a moment of ground truth.

A caveat: scientists need to act more like scientists and less like K-Street lobbyists if they are to do a better job of informing policy.