What Does the Future Hold for Science In the Challenging American Political Environment?
As scientists, AGU members know how important their research is. Earth and space science satisfies society’s natural curiosity and desire to understand how the world around them works. It also provides real and tangible benefits that drive our economy, protect our communities, and improve our quality of life. All of us benefit, around the world and here in the U.S. The benefits of science aren’t limited to red states or blue states, environmental organizations or Fortune 500 companies, the east coast, west coast or Great Plains . . . science protects and provides opportunities to us all, and has been doing so for generations.
Despite this long history of driving growth, today it can seem like some in the United States have lost sight of the transformative power of scientific research. For more than a decade scientific research has been underfunded and under supported on Capitol Hill and in state houses and city halls across the country. Whether it’s sacrificing non-defense discretionary investments in the name of budget balancing, bans on the use of the words “climate change” in government communications, questioning why we need science when we already have the weather channel, restricting scientists’ travel to conferences like AGU’s Fall Meeting, or demonstrating a lack of understanding about the goals and impacts of different agencies’ science missions (such as Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) assertion that Earth science isn’t hard science and has no place in NASA), America’s support and capacity for innovation can sometimes seem uncertain.
But, it’s not all bad news. This past Monday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that, if it passes, would begin to repair some of that past damage with ‘steady, predictable increases’ for science research funding in the Department of Energy Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense Science and Technology Programs, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Science Directorate, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Scientific and Technical Research and Services. Clearly, it’s not a panacea, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. The question remains, will Congress join him in this realization that funding scientific research is, at its core, an investment in America’s future? I certainly hope so, and I can assure you that AGU will do everything we can to see that it, and other such needed efforts, pass as quickly as possible.
So, with all of that in mind, I ask you this: What do you think the outlook for science – particularly Earth and space science – is with the current administration and Congress? Is Sen. Durbin’s bill a sign that the U.S. is again embracing the positive impact strategic investments in science can have on our society and economy, or is it just an outlier? And perhaps most importantly, what can we, as a scientific community, do to help the public understand why science is so important and all the ways they can and do benefit from it? (For one take on that last question, read the recent Eos opinion piece from William Hooke, past president of AGU’s Societal Impacts and Policy Sciences Focus Group.)
I am afraid that I believe the outlook for science, especially Earth and space science is bleak. One only has to read an economist’s view of government subsidized science, such as
“The Doomsday Lobby: Hype and Panic from Sputniks, Martians, and Marauding Meteors” by James T. Bennett, to realize that if things continue on the current path, the future is bleak indeed. One single senator’s bill is little reason for hope, it is surely an “outlier,” as you call it. What can scientists “do to help the public understand why science is so important?” I believe the best we can do is to reach out to the youth of this country. There are many ways to do this, including participating in science fairs, and volunteering to read to students in elementary school. I’ve done both recently, and I was very aware of the fact that the majority of judges for my local county science fair were old. In fact, mostly old white men. If we all don’t engage a more diverse population, including women and minorities, the future of scientific research will be very bleak.
The near-term outlook is bleak indeed. That said, sociopolitical change can be precipitous, as shown when a change of price of transportation fuel determines popularity of fuel-guzzling or fuel-thrifty vehicles. However, the issue of sociopolitical shift as it applies to climate science is whether the needed change can come in time to prevent a catastrophic shift to a new and broadly disrupting oceanic-atmospheric regime.