Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Don't act so surprised

There's quite a brouhaha about the Bush administration and the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on climate change. Several news sources are reporting that the Whitehouse and the then-Republican Congress pressured the museum to dilute the science presented in its exhibit, Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely. Critics and former Institution staff, as well as consulting scientists, allege that there was a threat to the museum’s funding if the exhibit diverged too much from the party-line.
"I remember them telling me there was an attempt to make sure there was nothing in there that would be upsetting to any politicians," said John Calder, a lead climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who consulted on the project. "They're not stupid. They don't want to upset the people who pay them."
Of course there was pressure. It is a hard and regrettable truth of science in the US government that political pressure will affect research and educational priorities and the manner in which conclusions are presented.

A quick primer in how it works: Each agency or sub agency in the executive branch (of which all of those departments and independent agencies, like the Smithsonian are a part) requests a certain amount of money to run its programs for a fiscal year. The Office of Management and Budget, part of the Whitehouse reviews these budgets, throws out some fluff, throws out some very important stuff, adds-in some politically-motivated dollars, and pitches a giant budget for the entire executive branch to Congress. Congress takes it all in committees, argues, throws out more fluff, throws out more very important stuff, adds-in more politically-motivated dollars, and sets the operating budget. The end-product is a fiscal Frankenstein’s monster that has a great deal to do with lobbyists and the personal feelings of politicians.

Bearing this system in mind, every agency head and budget official must keep an eye on the politics of both the Whitehouse and Congress. They all know that next year may be a year to “make some tough choices”, if the agency makes statements that are politically harmful to those who control the purse strings.
That said, voters must be cognizant of this sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit pressure from elected officials. American science runs the risk of becoming an international laughing-stock if we allow the fossil fuel lobby and Biblical literalists to assert equal weight against the best science available. Science is not exclusively the stuff of academics and school children. Science forms the basis of many sectors of the US economy. It extends and improves life and informs the way we live. Moreover, it is a fundamental avenue of human inquiry, like religion and art. Science is far too important to ignore.
Politicians must allow scientists the academic freedom to be scientists and should be held accountable to having a working grasp of trends in medicine, the environment, energy, and engineering. They must recognize that they, most of whom have a background in law, politics, or business, should be asking questions of those who have dedicated their careers to the sciences. Voters must be willing to deny continued public employment to those politicians who either cannot or will not do this.


Anonymous said...


its true what you said...we need to make small steps and then all of those small steps will equal larger leaps. We will prevail!

E. R. Dunhill said...

I'm glad to see that you're back and haven't lost one bit of your zeal.