Science as political football

So in the last post we saw that education can actually make people more resistant to facts.  The kicker is that this happens when topics in question have become politicized, i.e., ones that only one political party accepts or makes a party as a whole look bad.  And to our great misfortune, some scientific issues have fallen into this category. It used to be that the main hot-button issue was evolution, but back then there were still enough southern Democrats and moderate Republicans that scientific research into evolution was bipartisan both pro and con.  As such, it was a topic where education could play a positive role.

Since then it is climate change that has taken the lead in hot-button science.  It wasn’t that long ago when there was support for addressing climate change from both Republicans and Democrats, but that bipartisanship has faded away rather thoroughly.  As a result, the incoming chairs of science-related committees in the Senate are distinctly hostile to the notion (pick one) (a) that the climate is warming (b) that humans have any role in warming the climate (c) that there is any point in doing anything about this. And we’ve already seen how that sort of leadership plays out in the House.

Probably this means that we will see budgets for any science that bears on controversial topics go down at a time when we really could use more work.  This is apt to pull down budgets in other related areas (such as earth science as a whole).  While the President can veto bills that try to reverse any actions he has taken, he is unlikely to veto a spending bill solely because NSF, NOAA, or NASA aren’t getting enough money.

Years ago, science (especially NSF) actually would get more money if the GOP was in power; this was in part a political tug-of-war within a single appropriations bill where the GOP would tilt money towards science and the Democrats would tilt money towards entitlements.  It would seem that that old perception of the value of scientific research is gone.  The price we will pay in earth science could potentially be high, especially as this is coming at nearly the same moment that the oil and gas industry is reversing their big hiring boom of the last few years. Earth science employment has always had a boom and bust cycle to it, but this is potentially adding a whole other element into the bust side of things.

All because a scientific result has become a partisan football. So a lesson for the future: try to get advocates on both sides of the aisle for scientific results with policy implications…


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