Do’s and Don’ts of Oversight

The Washington Post has a story up today about the lack of experience staffers needed to implement Democratic oversight over the Bush administration.

According to the article, being in the minority for 10 years takes its toll. Not only on the country, but on the aides and staffers charged with finding and sorting through information. One staffer was embarrassed to admit she didn’t know she could demand documents instead of having to Google for them.

Thus, the nonprofit group Project on Government Oversight has been holding workshops on the lost handicraft of supervision.

The article is a great read and I highly recommend it.

But, to me it also points out the missing workshops for scientists. Scientists need to understand that not only the facts are important, presenting those facts are equally important. According to the Post article, some of the ideas can be directly related to science reporting.

The project’s written tips for “The Do’s and Don’ts of an Oversight Hearing” include: “Keep an eye out for the example that will put a human face on the problem. . . . Find the Department of Defense’s $640 toilet seat” and “Don’t book it in the afternoon — and especially not on a Friday. By the afternoon, most press deadlines have passed. On Friday, the hearing risks getting bumped off the news broadcast in lieu of another celebrity adoption.” [my emphasis]

The classic example of this kind of PR/Framing train wreck is the scheduled release of all three International IPCC reports on Fridays. While most scientists don’t think they should be making policy, they do think they need to make waves on important issues. That doesn’t happen on a Friday.

Thus, the second part of the IPCC, “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” was released on Friday, April 6 with little or no fanfair. The fact that there was little or no press coverage has to do with the timing not the importance.

After all, how many knew that one of the leading scientists got so frustrated with linguistic tweaking by US and Chinese politicians that she walked out? From the Washington Post on the following Saturday,

An inside look at the last few hours of tense negotiations at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reveals how the diplomats won at the end thanks to persistence and deadlines. But scientists quietly note that they have the last say.

Diplomats from 115 countries and 52 scientists hashed out the most comprehensive and gloomiest warning yet about the possible effects of global warming, from increased flooding, hunger, drought and diseases to the extinction of species.

The 23-page summary certainly didn’t sound diplomatic. But it was too much so, scientists said.

In the past, scientists at these meetings felt that their warnings were conveyed, albeit slightly edited down. But several of them left Friday with the sense that they had lost control of their document. At one point, NASA’s Cynthia Rosenzweig filed a formal protest and left the building, only to return, make peace and talk in positive tones. Others talked about abandoning the process altogether.

And even worse. How did the headline for this story change over time? When I researched this entry a week ago, I came up with the following screen shot [edited to remove the ad under the header] after searching the Washington Post web site for “IPCC Brussels”

Global Headline Change

I’ll let you guess which headline ended up being used.

All three of those links pointed to the same article. All three of those headlines reflected the same story of politics pushing scientists.

But the final headline? How do scientists ‘get the last word’ at the end of the day? It’s in the last paragraph,

Yet, scientists have their fallback: a second summary that consists of 79 densely written, heavily footnoted pages. The “technical summary,” which will eventually be released to the public but was obtained by The Associated Press, will not be edited by diplomats. The technical summary, Rosenzweig said, contains “the real facts.” [my emphasis]

Oh. Getting the facts out to the public? Right!

Framing science? Workshops about not scheduling things for Friday afternoons might be a start. And refusing to take part in those kinds of hearing due to ‘scheduling conflicts’ might be another.

Science? No.
Important? Your choice – it’s your world.

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