FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

 

 

 

More articles by:

January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Glenn Sacks
Teachers Strike Dispatch #8: New Independent Study Confirms LAUSD Has the Money to Meet UTLA’s Demands
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposable Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail