By Paul Davis
Michael Lewis’s 2010 best-seller, The Big Short, describes the global economy’s catastrophic fall onto the sharpened stakes in the pit of subprime mortgages. He tells the tale through the eyes of prescient—if sometimes idiosyncratic—players who were “in the room where it happened,” as Aaron Burr raps to Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s eponymous musical. Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, tells its story of politics, policy, and science with similar energy and an analogous set of engaged and engaging characters. But unlike the widespread economic devastation described in The Big Short, politics has not quite pushed the entirety of federal science into the pit. The dazed victim is merely teetering on the edge, punctured and bleeding but not yet fully lacerated.
The Fifth Risk is a quick and gripping read. A prologue describes the willfully determined ignorance underlying the Trump administration’s neglectful transition. Three subsequent chapters tell tales of the aftermath, one each for the U.S. Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. For scientists who have spent time in Washington, D.C., reading Lewis’s account is likely akin to sitting down with a John le Carré thriller set in a familiar place. Caught up in the fast-paced plot, they are transported back to locations they know, brain-numbing corridors in monolithic government offices, ideas, policy debates, and talking points. They see skeletons that rattle like ones they might have hauled through those same buildings, even if the flesh that falls from the bones in Lewis’s narrative differs from their own experiences.
The first chapter’s setting in the Department of Energy (DOE) is most likely to produce a le-Carré-esque response among mathematicians. The DOE’s national labs are central to applied and computational mathematics. Many SIAM members have worked in or visited these labs, while others have served as rotators in the department’s research program offices.
Lewis found DOE alumnus John MacWilliams at home five months after he had left the department, his briefing books untouched by the Trump transition team. In 2013, then-Secretary-of-Energy Ernest Moniz (a physicist, not a politician) invited MacWilliams to assess the DOE’s financial risks using his experience in law and investment banking. MacWilliams’s remit quickly expanded to encompass all risks facing the DOE, including nuclear weapons, nuclear power generation, spent fuel disposal, the electric power grid, and more.
Sitting across from MacWilliams at his kitchen table, Lewis sought to emulate the transition briefing that never happened. “Just give me the top five risks I need to worry about right away,” he brusquely demanded of MacWilliams. “Start at the top.” MacWilliams wanted to describe an accident with nuclear weapons, but Lewis—like the phantom transition team—lacked a security clearance. Generalities had to suffice. The same constraint limited MacWilliams’s description of his second proposed risk to two words: North Korea.
Despite the security restrictions, MacWilliams and his former colleagues from the DOE said enough to frighten Lewis. They spoke of precarious scenarios involving—but not limited to—technical failures in the electric grid or storage of radioactive waste. Of course, more than a few SIAM members have studied aspects of both possibilities in depth.
Compared to these Hollywood-style disaster situations, MacWilliams’s “fifth risk,” which lends the book its title, seems anticlimactic. He identifies this titular risk as “project management.” But where is the risk in project management? Are the scientists managing research programs—whether as rotators or permanent staff at DOE laboratories, the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, Army Research Office, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Department of Defense, etc.—really engaged in perilous work? Was MacWilliams making a bad joke about paper shufflers’ exposure to paper cuts?
Certainly not. Lewis explains that MacWilliams’s “more general point was that managing risks is an act of the imagination.” Humans can respond to a real-time crisis better than they can conceive of one that is forthcoming. “There is another way to think of John MacWilliams’s fifth risk: the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions,” Lewis writes. “‘Program management’ is not just program management…It is what you never learned that might have saved you.” It is the best kind of science — conceiving the inconceivable.
With that sobering warning in mind, the remaining chapters on the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce are distressing yet engrossing. Admiration for the work of Lewis’s heroes competes with concern over what could happen without such stalwarts at the ramparts; most of Lewis’s sources are reporting after leaving Washington.
The final section on the Department of Commerce will draw many SIAM readers through its focus on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This agency consumes more than half of the Commerce budget to generate and analyze big data—really big data—to predict the weather. Lewis reminds readers that the Department of Commerce also houses the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, home to other active SIAM members.
DJ Patil appears frequently in this chapter. Patil began his career studying dynamical systems and hacking into the National Weather Service to grab weather data for his doctoral research. He was appointed Chief Data Scientist in President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Despite Patil’s high-level view of government data, some things still caught him off guard. “In the end, even DJ Patil was shocked by the possibilities that lurked in the raw piles of information the government had acquired.” Lewis writes. “‘I didn’t grasp the scope at first,’ he said.”
“After Trump took office,” Lewis reports, “DJ Patil watched with wonder as the data disappeared across the government.” Links to climate change data evaporated, along with reports of consumer complaints about businesses. Statistics on access to drinking water in Puerto Rico vanished two weeks after Hurricane Maria. Nearly three-quarters of the data tables in the annual FBI crime report disappeared. Links to weather forecasts on the NOAA site moved from prominence to obscurity. All sorts of data that could fuel discovery, insight, and understanding fell from public reach.
You might wonder what awful things could arise from neglecting the Department of Agriculture, Lewis’s third subject. When Lewis asked one recently retired senior official to identify his primary concern, he replied, “Wildfires.” Yet we have heard little about them in the news recently!
The entirety of The Fifth Risk, brief as it is, offers compelling accounts of scientists, engineers, and science-savvy government employees struggling to keep the lights on in their hard-won corners of expertise. Lewis’s intense account of politics’ heavy hand falling on government science should draw more civic-minded scientists into government. The SIAM members and their colleagues who heed Lewis’s call are unlikely to become central characters in his next book. Nonetheless, they will have a memorable opportunity to learn and serve during a critical time in our shared professions.
Paul Davis is professor emeritus of mathematical sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He served as an assistant program manager in applied mathematics at the Army Research Office from 1974 to 1975, where his duties included managing proposal evaluations and advocating for the Mathematics Research Program. As a Jefferson Science Fellow from 2007 to 2008, Davis was a Senior Science Advisor in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. His primary responsibility was establishing the structure of an agreement for scientific cooperation between the United States and the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.