O’ROURKE: More politics in science

Space Cadet

Scientists tend to dream big but work small. Achieving a lofty but distant goal such as understanding the history of life might involve spending months making detailed measurements of mammalian skulls; discovering Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars requires a neurotic obsession with fiber optic cables. Methodical attention to detail is usually a comfortable — and rewarded — source of new discoveries and technologies. But in politics, scientists face a grave problem they cannot solve with small tweaks and incremental progress.

Support for science is steadily slipping among policymakers and the public — thanks in part to the concentrated efforts of anti-science corporations and politicians — even as science becomes more essential to understanding our complicated world. If this trend is not reversed, we risk entering an era in which innovation stagnates and people make critical decisions based on emotional whims.

Why the sudden alarm? After all, there is no immediate crisis. Unfortunately, there is no way to combat the pervasive problems facing science without drastic action — and now is as good a time as any to halt our drive toward a new Dark Age.

Flat or declining research budgets are the most obvious symptom of lackluster support for science. President Obama is a reliable cheerleader for science, and his budget request for 2013 represents a continuation of his support. Still, the relatively huge funding increases for three of the most well-off agencies — the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation — fall far short of achieving, for instance, the two-fold increase in funding relative to 2006 that was forecast by the bipartisan America COMPETES Act in 2007. Most other agencies now face slashed budgets or funding increases that fail to keep pace with inflation. In this austerity-hungry political climate, science’s fiscal future will only become bleaker.

Congress is particularly reluctant to fund large scientific projects, and some scientists, frankly, deserve blame. The James Webb Space Telescope — an infrared telescope that would characterize exoplanet atmospheres and image the universe’s first stars — is the largest single line item for American science, with a projected total cost of $8.7 billion. As recently as 2002, however, astronomers estimated that the telescope would cost only $2.5 billion. Irresponsible lowballing secured initial Congressional approval for the project, but the inevitable cost overruns sucked money away from a plethora of other worthy missions, including, as of last week, NASA’s Mars exploration program. But these budgetary shenanigans would not be necessary if scientists had more political clout in the first place.

The relative absence of scientific voices from the national conversation is more harmful than mere fiscal constraints on scientists’ own research. Out of 435 members of the House of Representatives, only nine are scientists or engineers. The scarcity of American scientists in government is a rarity in the developed world; in China, for instance, scientists and engineers dominate top government positions. Without scientists in office, elected officials make decisions requiring analytical thinking solely because of poll numbers and, more importantly, fail to appreciate the impact of investing in fundamental research.

Again, this is partly the fault of scientists, since scientists are as electable as anyone. Of course, accusations of elitism force all politicians to tread carefully. Republican Senator Scott Brown is fond of calling his opponent “Professor Elizabeth Warren,” seemingly to counter her self-portrayal as an outspoken advocate of the middle class. And if anything would make scientists unelectable, it is their jealous protection of their reputations for complete impartiality. Still, if scientists can master their fields of study, they certainly have the intellectual dexterity to succeed in politics.

Active participation is necessary to counter people who have few qualms about corrupting science to defeat opponents and inconvenient regulations. According to Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, scientists are “scared to death” of the massive financial resources deployed in discussions on everything from genetically modified crops to climate change. For Republican politicians, accepting the scientific consensus on climate change or evolution is tantamount to selling Texas to Iran, and unlimited super PAC contributions from anti-science corporations will only amplify their rhetoric.

Political engagement may seem unnatural and risky to many scientists. But the alternative is the disappearance of reliable research funding and the marginalization of scientific fact. And that benefits no one.

Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at joseph.orourke@yale.edu.