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Climate, Science, and Budget-Politics

Photo by Molly Adams | CC BY 2.0

Today’s debunkers of climate change and evolution seem cut of the same cloth, and part of a long tradition traceable at least back to the days of Copernicus and Galileo. Whether it be the structure of the universe, human evolution, or the more recent reality of a climate changed by human combustion of fossil fuels and depletion of forests, there have always been some within the human population who react with fear and loathing to the discoveries made by science.

Often as not, it’s the political powers-that-be who recoil in horror at what science and scientists say. In Copernicus’ day, it was religious leaders, but secular political leaders can be just as oppressive. In the former Soviet Union, for example, the “godless” communist party leaders suppressed the work of a geneticist whose research ran counter to the party line.

The same thing can happen anywhere, and America’s current crop of science-loathing politicians can find plenty of methods for suppressing scientists and their work, including manipulation of the budget. The most straightforward way to directly squelch science via the budget is by cutting the amount of money for scientific work.

But that’s not the only tool in a science-fearing politician’s bag of tricks, and it may not be the most important one. Another time-tested way to use the budget as a weapon against science is to spend a lot of money, but sink it all into a few, big, flashy projects. The resulting concentration of the science budget often delivers high-profile spectacle, but at the expense of all other science.

The 1980s saw considerable controversy over “Big Science.” High on the list was an $8 billion dollar space station that Ronald Reagan wanted to name “Freedom.” At first, only scientists followed that form of the battle over Big Science but, by 1990, the controversy had even made the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

In 1990, under President George (the father) Bush, the American government was insisting that science couldn’t be completely sure that a worldwide greenhouse effect was underway. “To find out for sure,” the Wall Street Journal said, the Bush administration planned to build “…a gargantuan system at a cost of about $50 billion over 25 years.”

One scientist quoted in the Journal said, “It’s the (space) shuttle all over again – all our eggs in one basket.” Another said, “The grandiose scale disturbs me. They’re creating a monster.” And there were some who feared that the demand for bigger science was just a ploy to fend off better policy.

At about the same time, NASA’s James Hansen had let it be known that he believed that greenhouse overheating had already begun, and was going to testify to that before Congress. The White House tried to silence him, but Hansen went to the Hill and talked.

Later, Hansen went on to criticize White House plans for one big space station. He said it would be better to put the various scientific equipment on smaller, separate satellites so that a blowup at launch or an accident in space wouldn’t destroy everything at once. In August, 1990, the National Research Council also came out in support of smaller satellites for the climate-research satellites.

Did the science budget get improved? Not by much. By late 1998, The Economist would observe that, after many years of controversy, the Big Science space station was shaping up to be the “most expensive tin can to be put into space…”

The Economist reported that, “By draining funds from other programmes, and tying up shuttle capacity, the space station is impeding research. Most of the science proposed for doing on the space station can already be done, here on earth, more cheaply; the costs of the space station will be tying up billions of dollars that could, if Congress were willing, be used for important scientific projects that now go starved of funds. ”

For politicians intent on science-bashing, this was a perfect ploy. It got worse. Universities, sniffing big money, started joining politicians in a rush to love Big Science.

In his article, “Academically Correct Biological Science,” in the November-December 1998 issue of American Scientist, Steven Vogel described an “unprecedented concentration ” of budgetary resources in university science. He challenged “…a growing institutional preference for expensive science…”

Money, Vogel says, is being concentrated within certain “academically correct” biological specialties, leaving others starved for cash. In these circumstances, biological science as a whole is thus weakened, while parts of it are selectively fattened, in a scientific investments portfolio that is not well diversified.

Vogel reports that the lion’s share of biological research funding is going to molecular and cellular biology, two specialties that — as currently employed — mainly produce data that may be useful for human therapies. To the naïve, this will sound just fine. After all, people need good defenses against disease and trauma. And it may ring the bells of a certain kind of logic to boast that the research dollar is aimed at “practical” purposes such as health.

But Vogel points out, as many have found it necessary to point out before him, that, “The history of science tells us that few major conceptual advances were driven by anticipation of immediate utility. The achievements of great biologists such as Harvey, Darwin and Mendel were neither responsive to contemporary problems nor responsible for short-term therapeutic gain.”

Putting all of biology’s budgetary eggs into the basket of human therapies is cause for concern. Humanity needs the full gamut of biological science, not just a few new miracle drugs. As Vogel points out, “As we try to offset the impact of our unprecedented population on the earth and to deal with the results of our own technology, acute problems will inevitably arise….and the chance of success will depend on the vitality and diversity” of the entire scientific community.

The problems caused by using the budget to suppress legitimate science would be bad enough. But that’s far from the end of the tale. In the U.S., supposedly a business-loving country, information necessary to business and the economy has also been vulnerable to political interference.

In its issue of September 13, 1999, for example, Business Week devoted a full page to an essay, “On Congress’ Hit List: Crucial Business Data.” In it, Business Week’s Howard Gleckman opens with a question about how the U.S. economy is doing, and says that “folks from the Federal Reserve Board to Wall Street and Main Street would love to know. But they won’t anytime soon.”

How could such an importantly broad swath of American society be kept in the dark? Because, Gleckman reported, “the federal agencies that gather and crunch the numbers were about to get “caught up in an ugly federal budget squeeze.”

Gleckman cited a major bank economist who warned that the budget cuts would impose their own kind of costs, and that those costs could be “enormous.” Why? Because business and policy leaders would have to make decisions on the basis of second-rate data.

And who would pay the costs of (second-rate) decisions based on second-rate data?  All of us. As Gleckman said in 1999, and as remains true today, “it’s the public that will feel the pain.”

Despite the passage of centuries, some things remain the same. Any budget that keeps us in the dark will, in one way or another, tax us.

 

 

 

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