Science, Data, and Evidence-Based Public Policy

By Michael Pearson, Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

The federal government has long played a central role in collecting and analyzing data, for all sorts of reasons. Our founders recognized that this should be so; the U.S. Constitution calls for a census (Article 1, Section 2) in order to appropriately allocate votes. Of course the scale of the data gathered by the federal government in our own time was unimaginable even 50 years ago, as technology has advanced to provide mechanisms for collection and storage of data of all kinds.

I was reminded of this most recently by several efforts to which we were alerted by our colleagues at the American Statistical Association (ASA). One of which is an effort to oppose a reorganization of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Essentially, the proposed reorganization would move the Bureau into a policy-making office, risking the perception of objectivity for which the Bureau has long stood.

A second effort, which MAA joined, was to oppose the relocation and reorganization of the USDA Economic Research Service, again moving the office from a strictly research arm to a policy-making arm. The ASA sent a letter to appropriate congressional leaders, and MAA joined a similar letter sponsored by the Friends of Agricultural Statistics and Analysis.

Another reminder of the value of the large-scale efforts that only the federal government can undertake, and the risk that comes with substantial reorganization driven by policy objectives, came through the recent publication of The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis, and reviewed in the NY Times.

Discussions that Lewis had with DJ Patil, who served as the first Chief Data Scientist of the United States Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2015 to 2017, under that Obama Administration, were featured in Lewis’s book, and help support Lewis’s larger claims that current efforts by various groups hostile to the role of the federal government in collecting and managing data to support effective policy-making do constitute the “risk” of the book’s title.

DJ, in particular, had done substantial work while in graduate school at the University of Maryland, using data from the National Weather Service (NWS, a division of the Department of Commerce), to provide measures of uncertainty to improve our ability to forecast weather. DJ’s methods have in fact helped improve forecasting. And it’s worth noting that the data used by all major weather forecasting companies are drawn from the NWS. Without careful collection, management, and sharing of this data, the U.S. economy would stand to suffer billions more in weather-related losses than we already do.

I note in passing that DJ was also an advocate for mathematics, and worked to allow the MAA-sponsored U.S. team to the International Mathematical Olympiad to visit the White House on Pi Day 2016.

The notion that federal support is essential for the long-term health of our society is not new. At the end of World War II, Vannevar Bush laid out the case in Science: The Endless Frontier, delivered to President Truman in July 1945. Bush was the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and had been asked by President Roosevelt to produce the report the previous year. In the summary, he wrote:

Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.

Vannevar Bush is credited with laying the groundwork for the founding of the National Science Foundation.

The MAA cannot single-handedly effect large-scale efforts to persuade policy makers to undertake meaningful efforts to preserve the enormously valuable and successful ways that the federal government supports the scientific enterprise, and ultimately uses the results to effect policies. However, we can, and do, engage in myriad ways with our colleagues and allies to support math and science, and the appropriate inclusion of data and evidence to inform policy decisions that will improve the quality of life for all our citizens.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the mathematical community, and I’m happy that MAA can represent our members to, in the words of our mission, advance the understanding of mathematics and its impact on our world.