Close Reading — March 10, 2014, 3:55 pm

The Congressional Research Service Teaches Science to Congress

A study in forced neutrality

HERE is today’s lesson, class:

Science and technology (S&T) play an increasingly important role in our society. Advances in science and technology can help drive economic growth, improve human health, increase agricultural productivity, and help meet national priorities. Federal policies affect scientific and technological advancement on several levels.

It sounds like your old social studies textbook — the one that started from zero and spent hundreds of novocaine-brain pages plowing back and forth across the obvious, so that students of every potential from nothing to infinity might absorb a few basics. But it is actually the opening of the Congressional Research Service’s latest report for members of Congress about the science and technology issues they will encounter during the current session. In an era when the CRS has plenty of readers for whom positive connections among “S&T,” federal policies, and national priorities are rather less than paradigmatic, it can take nothing for granted. After all, prominent members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology have blamed global warming on dinosaur flatulence, warned that embryology and the Big Bang are lies straight from Hell, and cast aspersions on the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign because of her “large posterior.” Nowadays the CRS must probe carefully for the most fruitful starting point, which is far, far below where it used to be.

Harper's Magazine  (August 1910)

Harper’s Magazine (August 1910)

Since 1952, when spies were presumed to be stealing American know-how at every turn (they were, they are, they always will), CRS reports have not been issued for the public, though they are in no way classified documents. A common citizen can get one from the government by asking for its number, a feat rather like already knowing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. (FYI, various organizations, particularly the Federation of American Scientists, collect them from friendly sources on the Hill and post them online.) For members of Congress, they are long-form Google answers with a human face, A+ term papers written by grinds who always hand in on time. Perhaps the Capitol’s last gasp of bipartisanship, they are solid as a rock, smooth as silk, and boring as hell, which perhaps explains why their budget has never been vaporized.

R43114, the forty-three-page S&T report for the 113th Congress, does start from absolute zero, so let’s open our copy and see what’s inside.

After several pages of explaining how the three branches of government work, to cover the apparently non-negligible possibility that some members arrive in Washington unclear about this, we find out right away that between 2009 and 2012, federal funding for all research and development fell from $147.3 billion to $140.9 billion, a decline of 4.3 percent in “current dollars” or 8.7 percent in “constant dollars.” The current/constant duet, which is ubiquitous in government budget talk, requires a bit of mental soft-shoe that could very well put certain members at a disadvantage. Inflation is slippery — just try to convince your grandmother why an ice-cream cone should cost $4.25 — and federal agencies inspired by the Pentagon learned long ago how to use it to feign imminent destitution across fiscal years. So the CRS takes no chances, emphasizing right away that this drop-off is “a reversal of sustained growth in federal R&D funding for more than half a century,” that such cuts are “exacerbated” by increases in other countries such as “China in particular,” and that American trade surpluses in high-tech products have been replaced by deficits. It’s a deft one-two-three rhetorical volley, combining respect for the past, patriotism, and the bottom line. Can anyone disagree?

These alarms are apparently insufficient, however, and here is where the CRS starts to display its peerless mastery of understatement. “Some Members of Congress have expressed concerns about the level of federal funding in light of the current federal fiscal condition, deficit, and debt,” the report calmly observes. There are even “differing perspectives on the appropriate role of the federal government in advancing science and technology.”

Now, it’s reasonable to assume that any sentient American is aware that not just some, but hundreds of members of Congress would rather chain the government’s doors than increase federal funding for anything, and that they believe every role the government plays is suspicious. The CRS approach? “Congress will play a central role in defining the nation’s R&D priorities as it makes decisions with respect to the size and distribution of aggregate, agency, and programmatic R&D funding.” And the angle of the sun’s rays at noon will play a central role in determining air temperature. Ready to move on.

The next ten pages breeze past the America COMPETES Act (a Bush-era law whose acronym is too long to spell out), which held hostage the National Science Foundation’s annual budget in order to impose a galaxy of provisions aimed at keeping scientists’ work practical. We learn that “experts widely accept that technological progress is responsible for up to one-half the growth of the U.S. economy,” with the caveat that “the social rate of return on R&D spending is over twice that of the rate of return to the inventor.” That is, don’t expect your favorite hometown entrepreneur/campaign contributor to get rich quick from this largesse.

We also learn from an unusually sharp factoid that the 112th Congress, which sat from January 2011 to January 2013, made the biggest changes to patent law since the nineteenth century, crowned by a ban on patents for human organisms. (Patents on new plant breeds have been obtainable since 1930 and on genetically modified organisms since 1980, but last year the Supreme Court outlawed them on naturally occurring human genes.) We get a quick glimpse at why so much Wall Street money sluices into dubious Silicon Valley startups: a 100 percent break on capital-gains tax for stock acquired in 2013, 50 percent for 2014 and thereafter — not too shabby. We learn that despite $3 billion in federal appropriations targeted to educational activities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called STEM disciplines), American students are still woefully behind the rest of the world. Obviously this will not prevent some of these students from winning election to Congress, but the CRS nonetheless deems it an issue of concern.

Agricultural research gets about a page of consideration, justified by a $2.5 billion yearly outlay for the Department of Agriculture that is traditionally authorized by the omnibus ag bill — an old chestnut that has been giving Congress headaches lately. Bioengineered foods are the sticky issue here, driven by the arrival of a genetically turbocharged salmon from Massachusetts that grows twice as fast as Mother Nature’s version. “Environmental groups and food safety advocates” want the super-salmon banned or at least labeled, while the COMPETES crowd wants it on grocery shelves ASAP. Anyone who agrees that embryology is a lie straight from Hell might be pulled in two different directions by this tasty fish, but the CRS never takes sides.

Next up is the National Institutes of Health, one of the big dogs in research funding, whose $29.3 billion budget for 2013 supports more than 300,000 scientists at 2,500 universities, hospitals, and independent centers. After its budget doubled between 1999 and 2003, NIH felt the chill of a 22 percent plummet from 2003 to 2013 because of what the CRS calls “constraints on discretionary spending.” In 2012, while letting NIH’s funding slide further, Congress reorganized the agency to focus on so-called translational medicine, a bench-to-bedside effort that speeds commercialization. “Some in Congress may have concerns about government overlap with private sector product development activities and whether NIH is expanding its mission beyond basic and applied research into drug development,” the CRS report notes with customary nonchalance, though the next sentence warns that “oversight topics include rules for financial conflict of interest.”

In the nonmedical sciences and engineering, the National Science Foundation’s budget is a huge spigot for university research, especially in mathematics and computer science. But for some reason neither the current number ($7.4 billion a year) nor the constant one is anywhere to be found in the CRS report. Could this be because “some observers prefer to direct any increases in federal funding for research to more purpose- or mission-oriented research than that which is typically funded at NSF” — or, in common academic parlance, that those observers would prefer to “stop paying for a lot of blue-sky b-llsh-t”? We only learn that “other enduring federal policy issues for the NSF focus on the balance between scientific independence and accountability to taxpayers.” Always dicey territory for S&T.

Nanotechnology could be the problem. The next section tells us that since 2001, when outgoing President Bill Clinton launched the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative, Congress has poured $16.1 billion into the nascent field. But “most current applications of nanotechnology are evolutionary in nature, offering incremental improvements in existing products and generally modest economic and societal benefits.” That is, things are moving like molasses. The only nano-successes the CRS spotlights are “in automobile bumpers, cargo beds, and step-assists to reduce weight, increase resistance to dents and scratches, and eliminate rust; in clothes to increase stain- and wrinkle-resistance; and in sporting goods to improve performance,” all of which sound like stuff that used to be advertised in the back pages of Popular Mechanics. Legislation to reauthorize the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 hasn’t even been enacted since 2008. Something seems to be awry here, but the CRS would never be blunt about it.

This brings us to the center of the report, where the 800-pound gorilla of the S&T jungle, the Department of Defense, resides. The section opens with a classic CRS truism (“Science and technology play an important role in national defense”) to introduce the “roughly $68 billion” Pentagon budget, which is “the single largest research and development program in the federal government.” Why roughly? Probably because it is next to impossible to pinpoint every element of the most gargantuan military budget lines. More than 82 percent of the department’s fortune goes to the development and testing of weapons. About $2 billion supports basic research, mostly in mathematics and materials. “Developers may be overly optimistic about what can be accomplished in a given amount of time and with a given amount of funds,” the CRS observes coolly, in what is perhaps a wink toward seven decades of bazillion-dollar weapons that never worked as advertised. “Congress has established a number of programs over the last few years to address these concerns” and “may choose to examine how effectively [they] achieve their objectives.” Or, if past is prelude, not.

The report then coasts downhill through poor old NASA, where “projected funding increases have not occurred” and “the cost of planned human spaceflight activities may mean less funding for other NASA missions,” which has been the case since John Glenn was a pup. Regarding “climate change,” a term preferred in the report over “global warming,” we learn that members of Congress will consider legislation that will either “prohibit the Administration from regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” or “establish new federal programs to reduce GHG emissions.” There’s your choice.

So, on to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which, despite an appropriation of $3.4 billion for R&D back in 2009, does not yet happen on a commercial industrial scale anywhere in the United States. CCS’s conceptual opposite is called geoengineering, which, rather than reduce man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, would try to change the natural energy balance of the planet — by somehow blocking the sun, say. Geoengineering is widely looked upon as a job for Superman, but that hasn’t prevented the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology from holding hearings on the subject. “With the possibility that climate change will remain an issue of global concern, Congress may determine whether geoengineering warrants attention,” the CRS report says, through palpably clenched jaw.

Now on down through the Advanced Research Projects Agency — not the famous Defense one that started the Internet, but the Energy one that the House majority wants to scotch. Thereafter, we confront the conundrum of nuclear-fuel reprocessing, the Achilles’ heel of atomic power, which Democratic and Republican presidents have alternately stopped and started since the Carter Administration. And what to do about the “Cape Wind” turbine project in Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Massachusetts, which is spinning nowhere fast? Well, at least the deepwater oil-well blowout-containment system — developed by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell without taxpayer help, because they don’t need it — has been dutifully tested by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The report reaches its finale with the Department of Homeland Security, which has become much like Defense as far as S&T are concerned. We learn that this bailiwick has grown so big, so fast, since 9/11, with at least ten “components” funding R&D, that oversight is “difficult,” which translates from CRS English as “lousy.” Just maintaining the burgeoning infrastructure of labs and university centers has cut into available research money. Next-generation gear to detect smuggled nuclear material is behind schedule. The $5.6 billion that Congress threw into Project BioShield in 2004, to speed vaccines and drugs against bioterrorism attacks, has run out with not much to show besides a controversial stockpile of anthrax jabs. BioWatch, a sister program to install pathogen aerosol sensors in more than thirty U.S. cities, is also in trouble, with the General Accountability Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Los Angeles Times claiming the sensors don’t work as desired. None of this kind of mishegas has ever slowed down the Pentagon, however, so Homeland Security will probably be just fine as-is.

Cybersecurity is the report’s curtain closer. One can imagine the CRS experts waiting until dawn on the last day of the semester to submit their final draft. It is of necessity so magnificently neutral, so larded with straight-faced statements such as “the federal role in cybersecurity is complex,” that it leaves behind an icy fog. The reader closes the book and heads for the lavatory, suitably mystified by science and technology, as has been the case for most at least since Copernicus proposed, contrary to what anybody could see with his or her own two eyes, that the earth goes around the sun.

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Combustion Engines

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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