The further politicization of geoscience
We’ve already seen numerous suggestions that scientific progress isn’t a top goal of many members of Congress who oversee science spending; there is a definite sense that they wish to only support science they agree with. So the move by the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to introduce a bill that attempts to manage spending levels at the directorate level in NSF is hard to see as anything but a political move. One of the directorates with a big bullseye on its back is geosciences, slated for an 8.6% cut (relative to 2015 spending levels; a 10% cut relative to the President’s request). Why? Given a number of the other targets in the bill, it would see than the Congressman desires to see less research into global warming. This is curious, as if he really meant what he said in an op-ed in 2013, you might think more research would be warranted:
“…there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science. These uncertainties undermine our ability to accurately determine how carbon dioxide has affected the climate in the past. They also limit our understanding of how anthropogenic emissions will affect future warming trends.”- Lamar Smith, Washington Post, May 19, 2013
Instead you get the distinct impression that his preference is to kill off research into climate science as results are proving to conflict with his worldview.
Of course there is an irony to this; it also cuts funding to research that seeks to understand geologic hazards, locate mineral resources, and evaluate more conventional environmental threats, so traditional extractive industries might lose out, too. And it doesn’t guarantee that NSF will in fact follow his preference: it is possible Geoscience might cut solid earth a lot and leave climate science well funded. (Though not likely, given how NSF confidential documents have been examined by Congressional committees). What this would certainly do is tend to cut funding to more marginal proposals submitted to NSF, which would probably include a greater proportion of proposals along the lines Rep. Smith might prefer to see funded.
[It is interesting to see what he increases funding for: fusion, biology, and engineering along with general math/physical sciences. Of these biology is something of a surprise–much modern biological research is largely predicated on evolution and natural selection, whipping boys for some on the right.]
Coming at the same time that fellow-conservative Newt Gingrich is arguing that NIH’s budget should be doubled because of the societal need, it seems ironic to be cutting research into another societal need, the risks of a changing climate. And while NIH research might help us live longer, the NSF research might help us avoid wars and famines (or better quantify those risks), both of which would make the NIH funding worthless.
Look, this isn’t helpful in the long run. It is easy to imagine a change in majorities in Congress which might flip-flop priorities in equally unuseful ways (for instance, aversion to immunization and opposition to genetically altered foods are popular points on the left). While it is certainly Congress’s role to decide what to do based on what science learns, Congress is a lousy place to be determining what scientists decide to investigate (hey, peer review stuff also has problems, but they aren’t nearly so mendacious). What all this does is to make science more of a political football, encouraging scientists to seek to ally themselves with political partisans simply in order to continue to conduct their apolitical research (and recall, global warming was a bipartisan issue not long ago).