You are here

Science and Politics

As a child, as the son of a scientist, I grew up in a scientifically literate family. At first, I wanted to be a scientist myself but, even in college, I could see that the funding priorities for science were shifting.

Science used to be about basic research. Scientists trained for many years and then, having proved their judgement through education, dissertation, and the tenure process, were given free rein to pursue their own agenda, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. Most basic research is incoherent to anyone outside of a field. A naive person will scoff at what seems like the pursuit of silly or trivial questions, but many of our key innovations and advances derive from research that began this way.

It's sometimes difficult to disentangle innovation in science from engineering. The advances during World War II in both gave us unimagined new destructive powers, as well as many other capabilities in sensing (RADAR) and information processing. The synergies of these innovations have given us the modern age. And there was a time that people understood that.

Growing up in the 1960s, we were bombarded with popular messages about the primacy of scientific understanding. Tennessee Tuxedo had Phineas J Whoopee. Gumby had Professor Kapp. Einstein was beatified, if not deified. Science was respected by popular culture.

Part of this push toward science, it turns out, was driven by a lie. In the late 1950s, the US and Soviet Union saw themselves in a race to develop ICBMs. The Soviet Union succeeded in orbiting a satellite first, leading to great angst that the US was behind in the "space race". This led to a huge surge in investment in science teaching and research -- and undoubtedly influenced the public perception of the importance of science. But in point of fact, the US could have put a satellite up first. Eisenhower intentionally held back military efforts, because he wanted either civilian efforts, or Soviet efforts, to succeed first.

During the 1970s, there was a growing scientific understanding of the limits of the earth to accommodate human activity. Environmental regulation based on science were put into place to reduce pollution. But corporations weren't happy with restrictions on their ability to extract profits while shifting the costs, through environmental degradation, onto the public.

In the 1980s, Reagan was elected, who took a dim view of science and just hated government. This was when the trend began of shifting all of the growth in the economy away from government and working people to put in the hands of the very wealthy. The government was invoked as a bogeyman to explain why there weren't jobs or people couldn't be paid more.

I've always been horrified by presidents singling out particular scientific projects to mock -- not just Republicans, but Democrats too. Bill Clinton mocked a grant to study the blood of horseshoe crabs -- like it was something crazy -- and evidently not understanding that the horseshoe crab immune system has unique properties that make it essential to medical testing. George W. Bush mocked a homeland defense bill that included a line item to create a new building to house the nation's collection of "bugs and worms" -- not understanding the important of bugs and worms to agriculture and that they're stored in alcohol which, if attacked could cause the whole building to go up in flames.

Today, science is under siege. Basic research is all but dead. Wisconsin has undermined tenure. And the current president rejects science on climate change as a "Chinese hoax". His "ban on Muslims" is already blocking scientists coming to study here.

In World War II, the Germans killed off and chased away their Jewish scientists -- including the man who first envisioned the possibility of creating a nuclear bomb, Leo Szilard. Einstein was also a Jewish refugee. And many, many others.

Science is not perfect: It is a human endeavor. Science sometimes fares badly when paired with journalism, which is more interested in headlines and controversy than the long arc of theory. Or when used as a substitute for ethics. But science is the best we've got if we want to take reality into account when making decisions. And we ignore it at our peril.