31 August 2008

New Job, and Possible Radio Silence

I'm about to start a new job, and that may delay my future posts a bit.

For the past two years, I've been an AAAS Science Policy Fellow working at the US Department of Energy's Office of Science. More details on what I did there can be found here.

On 2 September 2008, I'll start my most intriguing position yet. Again I'll be a Science Policy Fellow, but this time I'll be working at the US Department of State's Office of International Labor and Corporate Social Responsibility (ILCSR). There, I'll have responsibility for coordinating US Government efforts in and with the countries of South Asia and maybe a bit more besides. Since I've gotten a lot of questions from folks, here are some FAQ's:

Q: What's this about South Asia? Weren't you there before?

A: Yes, I was. In this job I'll be covering the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and India. I may have some responsibility over Afghanistan and other countries of Central Asia, but it's really uncertain at the moment.

Q: What does the State Department have to do with labor rights?

A: In many of our agreements with other countries, trade treaties and otherwise, there are labor and human rights conditions. The basic idea is that we try not to import goods made with slave labor, forced labor, child labor, etc., so trade sanctions are the "stick". We also want to help countries improve their labor conditions, so we work with them to train labor advocates, government officials, and even executives in private companies on how to do that (the "carrot").

Q: Wait—Why do we care about labor rights in other countries, again?

A: I don't know about the US Government, but I care for a few reasons. First, supporting labor rights for all humans is one of my values, so I would prefer to advance those values when and where I can. Second, I care about US workers, and don't want them to have to compete with slave labor, because that's not fair. Third, isolated injustice breeds global violence, and we can't afford any more of that. Fourth, well-paid workers overseas make great markets for US goods, and that helps US workers, also.

Q: What part will you play in the State Department's work?

A: Right now, I'm not entirely sure. I know I'll play a role in coordinating labor programs in South Asia funded by the State Department, the US Department of Labor, and others. I'll also play a role in the writing of the annual Human Rights Report—the highest-profile document that the State Department puts out.

Q: What would you like to do in this position?

A: I have a few ideas:
  1. I'd like to put my science training to work, and raise the profile of the scientific components of labor issues. These include the environmental, safety and health effects associated with labor. You can think of the recycling of e-waste into heavy metals that end up contaminating our imported toys and jewelry, as one example.

  2. I'd also like to look at the way technology can assist in monitoring labor standards. From the statistics of forensic accounting to GIS mapping techniques, the possibilities for multiplying the force of labor rights monitors are tremendous. I could imagine such technology helping to detect, deter and disrupt anything from child soldiering to sex trafficking to ... well, you name it!

  3. I'd like to use my previous transparency and anti-corruption experience to push for better governance and accountability mechanisms. For example, unions can be effective as advocates for their members only when they are open, democratic, and accountable to those members.

  4. Similarly, I think there's lots of room in the region for supply-chain transparency and accountability. This is where the corporate social responsibility comes in. Even well-meaning US multinationals have a hard time making sure that their overseas partners are living up to global standards. Independent and rigorous evaluation bodies are desperately needed to coordinate between the businesses as well as labor and government players.

Q: Will you get to travel to the region? How often?

A: That's unclear, as yet. It's likely that I'll make at least one trip, and likely two. At the very least, I hope I get a trip long enough to get some personal time to visit my friends in Delhi and Ahmedabad, as well as to refresh my professional wardrobe. If there is a major relevant conference in the area, that might be a determining factor.

Q: They let someone like you do this job? What ever happened to standards?

A: A Secret-level Security Clearance is necessary for this job, as I'll have to look at diplomatic communications of a somewhat sensitive nature. I had to go through the process, which is an especially big pain for immigrants, even for the child of immigrants.

Q: How long before they are able to correct this obvious hiring error?

A: I'm planning for this temporary position to last at least a year. Beyond that, it's up to AAAS and my bosses at State to decide whether they want me to stay. Here's hoping I do well!

Q: What will you do after this position? Why did you take (yet another!) temporary position? Aren't you tired of being a "Fellow"?

A: I've been aiming my career toward traditional science policy for a while, and have gotten a decent taste of it over the last few years. It's exhilarating. But my interests are much broader than that, and have leaned heavily in the human rights realm. This position offers a great opportunity to bridge the worlds of science and human rights, much as I was earlier attempting to bridge the academic and government worlds. Besides, like many folks in DC, I'm not planning on being here for too much longer.

Q: So what's this about delayed posts?

A: Well, I don't want it to appear that this space is speaking on behalf of the US Government. That puts all of my publications in an interesting spot. I'll try to keep writing with caveats before and after each post, and hopefully that will be enough. If not, I may have to delay future entries until after this position has ended.

25 August 2008

Censorship vs Terrorism? Animals vs Science?

The cars of two UCSC scientists and their families were firebombed earlier this month, reportedly by an animal-rights group. In response to these detestable attacks, some scientists have proposed internet censorship as a method of preventing this violent harassment. More than simply ineffective, this measure would be counterproductive. There is another, more transparent way that we should pursue immediately.

To be clear, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and the animal-rights community is divided over the issue. The Humane Society has gone so far as to offer a reward for information about the perpetrators of the incident.

In their editorial in Science Magazine, M. R. C. Greenwood, Gordon Ringold, and Doug Kellogg (GRK) correctly characterize the situation while lamenting the lack of public outcry:
These are criminal acts, being investigated as an attempted homicide by local, state, and federal authorities. It is of serious concern that these acts of terrorism and their associated incendiary statements were not immediately condemned by our political leaders. There have been no high-profile or unified statements about the incidents, and days afterward, California's governor had still declined to comment.
GRK further identify the need to address underlying issues in this conflict:
Those responsible must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those who oppose animal research, even when conducted under strict federal and state laws, are free to express those beliefs. They are also free to reject the medicines--the fruits of animal research--that now allow us to treat disease and lead healthier lives. But they are not free to conduct a terror campaign.
Though, most animal-rights activists would probably counter that they don't have an alternative; that is, they don't have the ability to reject products that have resulted from animal-testing because there's no rigorous tracking and labeling in place to identify viable alternatives. (Instead, the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry-sponsored organization, fights all efforts to make products transparent, including nutritional labeling.)

But the proposed legislation, promoting secrecy as a solution, is where GRK really stumble:
State laws that reinforce these protections need to be enacted. A proposed bill in the California Legislature (AB2296), which would extend protection to "animal enterprise workers" similar to that provided for politicians and reproductive health workers, has been much weakened from its original intent. In its original form, it would have prevented the posting of personal information on Web sites with the intent to incite acts of violence or threaten researchers and their families.
This approach of locking down information to prevent violent harassment is wrongheaded and counterproductive. Data leaks do happen. If these lists are going to exist anyway, we are much better off having them in the open. That way, at least we know who's being targeted.

Here's what we should do:
  • As a society, we should prosecute these terrorists as criminals, and treat these actions as what they are, organized crime. That means bringing sophisticated financial tracking systems to bear, and applying relevant statutes like RICO to break down the support network for the groups that exist now. Financial transparency of all organizations is a way to prevent such groups from forming in the future.

  • As a scientific community, we should isolate these extremists by working closely with animal rights groups like the Humane Society and individuals like Stephen Kaufman of the Christian Vegetarian Association and Eric Markus of that have denounced violence as a means of progress. Along with pharmaceutical and cosmetic manufacturers, we should create clear tracking and labeling protocols to give citizens real information on how much and what kind of testing goes into each product on the market. This market transparency allows us all to see the real benefits of animal testing research, as well as the opportunity to reject those benefits.

  • Above all, we should not lean on censorship and secrecy for protection against violent harassment! Secrecy is a short-term solution at best, and is inherently unstable. Instead, as individual scientists, we should humanize ourselves to the animal rights community by engaging vigorously with those non-violent groups, to show them, first-hand, the science being done and the results generated.
Both scientists and activists agree that both human and animal suffering should be minimized. Let us use that as an opportunity for more transparency on all sides.