Science, rah rah
Darlene Cavalier isn’t your typical cheerleader. The petite, blond ex-Philadelphia 76ers dancer is driven by a single-minded goal—to reestablish a new-and-improved Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a Congressional science advisory body that was shuttered by Newt Gingrich and fellow Republicans in the mid-1990s. Cavalier spends her days dashing off countless emails, maintaining her website, www.sciencecheerleader.com, and flitting between her home in Philadelphia and meetings with high-level government officials and members of Congress in Washington, DC.
Cavalier says she’s making headway, partly due to the fact that she doesn’t look like your typical lobbyist. “It’s not threatening for anybody,” she says. “It’s sort of comical. People look at a blond cheerleader and think, ‘What is she doing in our world?’”
After a couple of years in the early 1990s cheering for the 76ers, Cavalier worked in business development at Discover magazine, and got her master’s degree studying how scientific information is weighed in policy making. She arrived at the conclusion that the public was not involved enough in shaping science and technology policies.
In early 2008, a fellow parent at her child’s school encouraged Cavalier to use her cheerleading chops to accomplish her science advocacy goals, and the seeds for the science cheerleader were planted. Her site now features science videos of Cavalier with magic duo Penn and Teller and the current 76ers cheerleaders. (One quote from the website: “A higher percentage of Tennesee [sic] Titans cheerleaders have formal science training than do members of Congress.”) “I could make [science advocacy] more attractive by getting the 76ers, and Penn and Teller and other celebrities involved,” she says.
Over the course of her efforts, Cavalier met David Guston, a political scientist at Arizona State University, who has been involved in some of the numerous efforts to reopen the OTA. He says that Cavalier lends a new, promising aspect to the OTA effort. “I think having Darlene’s more athletic grassroots efforts behind it is going to be helpful compared to a more academic push,” says Guston, who is also codirector for the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at ASU. “The last thing Congress wants is a bunch of academics telling it what to do.”
But there’s something else that differentiates Cavalier’s vision for a new OTA. “I don’t think that it’s wise to just reopen the doors to the old OTA,” she says. As a result, she wants to go beyond the professional scientist advice that formed the core of the old OTA, and add public participation to the equation. But this, Cavalier admits, requires a more scientifically literate populace.
Cavalier enlisted the help of James Trefil, George Mason University physicist and science literacy advocate, to create a science literacy feature on her website, which includes video of current 76ers cheerleaders reciting key science concepts. Trefil says he’s thrilled with the project, but does have one regret. “I never got to meet the cheerleaders,” he laments, “which is a great source of sorrow for me.”
When Congress yanked the funding from the OTA in 1994, the agency’s last annual budget amounted to $26 million—a drop in the bucket in this age of billion-dollar bailouts and hulking stimulus cash infusions. Some legislators have rallied to Cavalier’s cause and are pushing colleagues to discuss reopening a new, participatory OTA. Cavalier, along with Guston and Loka Institute political scientist Richard Sclove, has drafted and plans on distributing a statement outlining their vision for a new OTA. Cavalier has also started another website, ScienceForCitizens.net, and moderates an OTA Facebook group, where she’s collected more than 650 signatures from scientists, policy makers and science advocates, on a petition to reopen the OTA.
Sclove, who has studied the myriad failed attempts to reopen the OTA, says that Cavalier’s insistence on including public input and her extreme enthusiasm means that this time it could actually work. “Social change happens when passionate people decide that something needs to happen, and just won’t stop,” he says.