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Home > Focus > A Conversation with Pallavi Phartiyal - part 1

A Conversation with Pallavi Phartiyal - part 1

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 12 April 2012

Cambridge Massachusetts hosts one of the main offices of the Union of Concerned Scientists [2], described on their own website as "the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world" They go on to state that "UCS combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices".

The Union is about to open its new 'Center for Science and Democracy', and I was fortunate enough to meet and record a conversation with the centre's Program Manager Pallavi Phartiyal [3]. Photos of the event are available here on Flickr [4].

The conversation touched upon the following themes:
Part 1 (this post)
- The work of the union
- The role of politics in innovation
- The new Center for Science and Democracy

Part 2 [5] (the next post)
- Politics in the global warming debate
- The work and responsibility of the media
- The aims and objectives of the Science center

The following is a full transcription of the conversation:

J Hankins:
Can you tell me about your organization please?

P Phartiyal:
My organization is the Union of Concerned Scientists and we are one of the leading science based organizations. We pride ourselves in taking scientific knowledge and converting it into practical solutions to implement change. We are working on several programmatic areas and they are where most of our efforts are focused. Primarily we are working on climate and energy, on clean vehicles, food and environment, scientific integrity and global security. These are just the titles of programs and they of course contain a very broad swathe of individual topics. For instance the global security program ranges from security of nuclear reactors to space security so it is really very broad, but these are the programmatic areas. As an association we are membership based so all of our support comes either from individual donors or foundation support. We have over 85000 members that actually give money to us and over 400000 people that we call supporters. They are signed up to hear from us through our publications or e-mails but are not directly funding us. But more than 85000 people actually write cheques to us, and that is how we raise the money to carry out our work.

J H:
The organization seems very much US geared looking at the website.

P P:
Yes it is, of the supporters that I talked about roughly 10 000 of them are international but other than that the majority are US based. Some of it is an active decision because the kinds of issues we are working on are these huge issues that are very closely tied to politics, making change in policies or advocating for more US based solutions. We have to work either directly with regulators or citizens who talk to their legislators about making changes, and that is a huge lift as it is. We are an organization of 150 staff members or so we can only do so much, and it is often an active decision that we have to make, even though a lot of the issues that we work on cannot be defined by national boundaries (for example climate and energy). Our staff members are actively involved in international conferences, they go to them, they inform our reports but the focus of our work is mainly US based.

J H:
One of the things that I find very interesting looking at your website, and that we are very involved in at the Foundation, is politics and its role within innovation, and something that we might be able to describe as innovation as politics. Can you tell me about the Science Under Attack project.

P P:
Yes, one of the programs that I mentioned is scientific integrity. This is the program that most directly interfaces with the political side, the political interference in science, or manipulation of science by the government officials, and we have had great success through that program. We have worked with federal agencies that through our doggedness over the last 7 or 8 years have now put out scientific integrity guidelines (or are in the process of finalizing their guidelines) which basically minimize the restrictions placed on scientists to inform the public about the federal research that they are conducting. A lot of the Scientific Integrity program looks at science under attack in federal agencies. That is the most direct link, although there are other campaigns that we run such as the 'Weight of the Evidence' campaign where our expert team (we have a network of more than 18000 experts including scientists and economists) are paired up with media so that they can inform them about what is right and what is not, scientifically, and point out mischaracterizations.  We have also done some work aimed at preventing harassment of scientists within institutions, such as the case you read on our website on science under attack- a harassment campaign launched by the Attorney General of Virginia on a climate scientist who was employed at the University of Virginia. All of this is under the broad umbrella of science and scientific integrity.

J H:
And tell me about your job and the new center.

P P:
This is a brand new initiative that the Union of Concerned Scientists is undertaking called the 'Center for Science and Democracy'. We are in the very early stages of launching this initiative. Internally we have been working on it for some time, and we will formally launch it in May on the East Coast in Cambridge Massachusetts at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and on the West Coast on June 13th at the Scripts Institute of Oceanography.
The idea behind the center is to go beyond thematic topics in science, beyond just environment, and climate and global security or evolution (that we don't directly work on) and take everything that comes under the broad umbrella of science, technology and innovation and really integrate it into the democratic process, into the governance and policy making process. We want to do it by mobilizing the public, mobilizing scientists and also through direct conversation with the media and policy makers to re-emphasize the importance of science and science-based decision making in the policy process.
We understand that given a specific person's political views, solutions might be very different, but we would like the conversation to start at a facts-based level so we at least have a conversation based upon a consensus about what the scientific facts say and what the evidence says. Then, there can be several policy solutions to a given challenge. So we are really trying to emphasize what has been historically true in the US; if you go back all the way to the founding fathers they were from the enlightenment era and they really talked about how science belongs in the democratic process and how we should think about the principles of science and the value of evidence-based decision making.
That is the kind of thinking we want to bring back through the work of the Center and try to make citizens more aware of what science has done for the public, how science and technology play a part in everyday lives and then gain vocal support for science-based decision making.

J H:
And what methodology are you proposing to use?

P P:
That is the hard part because it is such an ambitious undertaking and the problems that we are facing are enormous. Some of the biggest issues at play in this area are political agendas, corporate interference in politics and the influence of money, and these are really huge issues. An organization like ours cannot claim to say that we can solve them all, and I would say that this is a work in progress because it is a new initiative, but one of the things that we are thinking about is holding 2 or 3 problem-solving public forums across the country. They would not be purely academic in nature but will include experts from academia, but also several kinds of stakeholders.
They will address a problem that is affecting a community or a problem that is science based and requires policy solutions. We want to involve the public in informing what the problem is, and then bring in experts to interface with the public. We want to include media and people from the business community, from faith communities, and youth, to really diversify the people who have a voice in talking about one specific problem. This would be a 2 to 3 day forum and really have a public nature to it, and at the end it would come up with actual solutions for the problem that was identified and then use the media and citizen action to take it forward. Over the last couple of months we have been brainstorming about what the follow on of a gathering like this should be. And how should we institutionalize the forum setting so that we have the barebones of the forum in place, which can then be used in service of different issues as they present themselves? We want to have the basic structure to say these are the wide range of stakeholders that we want to bring to the table, these are the different elements that we want to have within the forum and these are several kinds of follow up activities that follow from it.
Some of these are more obvious than others, it depends on what stage that specific problem is at. If you are looking at fracking, for example, in a particular geographic area that topic might be more immediate than say the teaching of evolution in classrooms, that might require engaging educators from K through 12 and that might not necessarily have an immediate obvious action associated with it. We would hope to come up with solutions however that would then be released back into the community and into the decision making process.

J H:
You have done some forums before haven't you?

P P:
Yes, we have done 2 forums that specifically inform the work of the Center, so we are going to use them to inform how we design this whole program. Again, this is one element of what the center will try to do but the better defined than the other elements at this point.
We recently held two forums that will inform the future forums of the Center. One was on the challenges facing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and discussed policy considerations tied to the upcoming reauthorization of the prescription drug user fee act in congress. The other was using the advances in the social science research to communicate about risks of climate change to people. There is a big divide as you know in this country between people who believe in climate change and those who don't, and this forum really targeted stakeholders from different communities. It brought business leaders who have understood that climate change is happening and that we need to do something about it. It brought policy leaders from both sides of the isle, democrats and republicans. It brought leaders from the faith community who view people as stewards of the Earth, responsible for preserving it, from a faith-based perspective.
We had a public event where we brought in social scientists who talked about why it is hard to communicate about the challenges in thinking about the risks associated with climate change. So those were some of our initial forums that  will inform the way we go forward, and what we have learned, and will help in the design of what we do in the future.
(continues [6])

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] http://www.ucsusa.org/
  3. 3] http://www.linkedin.com/pub/pallavi-phartiyal/6/b8b/534
  4. 4] http://www.flickr.com/photos/fondazionebassetti/sets/72157629438368834/show/
  5. 5] /en/focus/2012/04/a_conversation_with_pallavi_ph_1.html
  6. 6] /en/focus/2012/04/a_conversation_with_pallavi_ph_1.html
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Pallavi Phartiyal
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