Posts Tagged ‘Theme: science and policy’

Post by Minna Krejci

I first learned of Yucca Mountain when I was in college.  But it wasn’t a discussion about politics amongst friends or a presidential campaign that introduced me to the topic, and to the controversy.

It was a class, on materials science and engineering.  We were discussing corrosion, and my professor was a corrosion expert who happened to be involved with the Yucca Mountain project.  He was part of a team that was investigating the role of engineered barriers in waste isolation — in other words, they wanted to see how the passing of time and changes in the environment would affect the ability of a waste canister to completely contain radioactive waste.  It was an interesting problem in science and engineering, to consider what could possibly happen over time… and to design materials that would be resistant to forces that threaten to degrade the canister, potentially allowing hazardous radioactive waste to leach out into the surrounding environment.

And what did they find out?  I’m not sure how far they got, because the funding to develop the Nevada site as a repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel and high level radioactive waste was cut a few years later (in 2010 I believe).  Many Nevada residents and politicians opposed the project, partially because they felt it was unfair to have other states’ waste dumped in their state, and also due to safety and environmental concerns.

Although extensive scientific studies consistently showed Yucca Mountain to be a sound site for nuclear waste disposal, the Yucca Mountain repository program has been marred in political controversy since the site was selected in 1986.  The recent Fukushima incident in Japan has reignited much of the controversy surrounding the program’s termination, as a reminder that storing nuclear waste at nuclear reactor sites (as is often currently the case) may not be the safest option, and a viable alternative to the Yucca Mountain repository project has not really been identified.

What I find to be one of the most interesting (and disconcerting) aspects of the whole situation is that science and politics don’t seem to be getting along terribly well.  For example, a report released in April 2011 by the United States Government Accountability Office states that the project was terminated based on social and political issues, and not due to technical or safety issues.  At a hearing yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko came under attack regarding his role in the death of the program: according to Representative Joe Pitts, “It appears that Chairman Jaczko has let politics trump science here, that he’s manipulated the process.”

There is no doubt that social and political issues are important in a case like this, and scientific results certainly can’t be considered in a vacuum and in the absence of other such considerations.  The tricky part is incorporating the scientific, societal, and political issues into the decision-making process in order to come up with a solution that appears to have the most merit overall.  Science tends to show up in political arguments fairly often these days — but are the politics supporting the science, or is the science supporting the politics?  It makes me nervous to hear statements like “politics trump science” — are politics and science competing?

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By Ruthanna Gordon

Watch the latest CSI, and you’ll see a world where evidence is clear-cut and scientific.  By the end of any episode, the viewer can feel secure that the guilty party has been caught, and will be tried and convicted.

In the real world, the situation is often far more complicated.  If investigators are very lucky, criminals leave behind sufficient DNA for testing, and either have that DNA already on file from previous convictions, or get caught so that a new comparison can be made.  (Although unless the case is very high-priority, test results come back in weeks rather than hours.)  Under these circumstances, determinations of guilt can be clear-cut and scientific.  Other types of evidence tend to be fuzzier.

Eyewitness testimony, for example, is far more unreliable than people like to admit.  Leading questions can change someone’s memory outright, or bias their descriptions.  One study showed people a video of a car accident:

How fast do you think the cars were going when they smashed into each other?

If you’re like most people watching the video, your answer to that question—presumably asked by the prosecution—will be 10-15 miles per hour faster than if the defense asked you about the speed of the cars when they “contacted” each other.  Other studies have used similar manipulations to change memory for weapon used, appearance of the perpetrator, and sometimes even the perpetrator’s recollection of their own actions.

The same biases can also affect those whose job it is to interpret evidence.  The whorls and lines of your fingertips really are unique—but fingerprints tend to be smudged.  Fingerprint experts learn towards finding matches between the prints collected at a crime scene, and those they already have access to.  And their confidence levels for these judgments tend to be unrealistically high.

An understanding of these issues has begun to trickle into the courtroom.  Defense lawyers sometimes bring in memory researchers to warn juries about eyewitness fallibility.  Juries are also more likely to receive information about accuracy rates for tests, or how well one can really see a face at 200 feet in the fog.  And yet, it’s still common for people convicted on other evidence to be exonerated by DNA testing.  It’s not yet clear how to create a working justice system that responds appropriately to these findings—but we’ve certainly got a long way to go.

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