why science and politics don’t mix, revisited

November 3, 2010

Yesterday, over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait echoed the sentiment that science isn’t faring much better under the Obama administration than it had under President Bush’s reign. Better, I assume in this case, being less attacks on scientific education, more money being given to researchers, and fewer restrictions in their fields of study motivated by denialism or religious fundamentalism. And that’s true. There really hasn’t been all that much improvement in any of these areas, but when trying to tie politics and science to explain that there was some change, it’s just that there’s a different direction of attacks against research and researchers and what partisan zealots see as science they must silence, Phil misses a number of crucial points. In his words…

There are too many attacks to even list coherently, ranging from climate science to evolution and stem cell research. It’s the same old list, in fact, but a lot of the names have changed since 2008. I certainly hope things get better, but if anyone from the Tea Party is elected, it certainly won’t help.

True, as we discussed already, the Tea Party’s basic approach to everything is almost reactionary, but the successful populist candidates who will take office in January aren’t going to hurt science all that much either because that’s not where their priorities lie. The reason why the government hasn’t allocated more money or importance to scientific research isn’t necessarily due to its aversion to science in general. No, the truth is far worse than that. Rather than beating down science out of fear, the government doesn’t care about it at all. It’s just not as important as pleasing partisan activists. President Bush had scientists on a short leash because his base is deeply distrustful of all scientific progress that doesn’t affirm or comply with their religious beliefs, and to stay in power, he thoughtlessly muzzled researchers and supported what amounted to local attacks on science education by overzealous Bible-thumpers dreaming of a theocratic America. When President Obama took over, his priority was to reverse his predecessor’s damage to the scientific community, but not to fund the new generation of scientists and engineers. His priorities are wars and the economy. Not science.

Of course the names have changed and there’s more of a bottom-up assault on scientific research guilty of a crime most repellent to political partisans: violating their dogmas. The exact same people who elected Bush and received his open support in trying to dismantle the education of evolution, cosmology, and unfortunately scientifically-based sexual education with disastrous results for American teenagers, have simply kept up their crusade. Meanwhile, the current administration is far too busy trying to miraculously drum up jobs for an increasingly angry and desperate electorate furious that things just aren’t getting better and won’t for years to come thanks to major shifts in technology and global politics. Science isn’t just on the back burner, but it was taken off the stove and forgotten somewhere on the counter, next to the spices. To someone like Phil or myself, if you want to start an economic recovery, invest in your STEM capabilities, like DARPA wants to do. A new technology will automatically create jobs as it replaces and invigorates old industries. But we should be fair and note that someone like Phil or me would be quite biased towards science and engineering.

Plus, without tens of billions in constantly flowing funds across many lines of research and investigation, that process of science-driven economic shift would take many years. That’s unacceptable to both the voters who demand jobs now, and bean counters who just don’t understand how the scientific process works. Rather than asking why "science isn’t doing better" under such and such administration or political party in power, we have to sober up and realize that scientific research and education have plummeted from the list of priorities, with our population and politicians content to coast on decades old breakthroughs. And before scientists and science bloggers rush to blame the Tea Party for the next several years of stagnant budgets and utter lack of commitment from the government to bolstering research and education past paying it some lip service at yet another tactical campaign speech custom-written for nerds like us, we need to realize that we’re dealing with an apathetic system that sees us as pests and unrealistic dreamers. There’s no struggle between pro- and anti-science forces on Capitol Hill. There are only politicians who hate that scientists won’t indulge their long held beliefs and politicians who couldn’t possibly care less about our future place in global R&D.

[ illustration by Stijn Verplancke ]

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Anti-intellectual, and anti-science (or apathetic science) feelings have been common in the U.S. for some time. Every now and then, a crisis (cf Sputnik) will suddenly galvanize the public, and a rush of funds will be sent towards science and education. Sometimes, a long-term cause (cf polio) will affect so many people that money is dedicated towards a solution.

    But Americans aren’t good with ongoing projects; which all scientific research ultimately is. Americans want to find a solution to a problem, implement it, and move on. Scientific research requires a long-term commitment of time and funding, with uncertain results. (As in, you don’t know exactly what will be discovered, or how immediately useful that discovery will be, or how it will all take.) And the business community also wants fast results with probable profit; not basic research with no discernable end.

    Although educated individuals in both government and business are well aware of what scientific research requires, and how important it ultimately is, getting funding for projects over those hurdles is difficult minus some perceived immediate need.

  • We have here a failure to communicate.
    Catching up with the USSR in space or finding a cure for polio even may be better called R&D. At least directed research. There was a time when business/industry actually funded this stuff; remember Bell Labs?
    Business/industry never has and never will fund basic research.

    Now the government will not either which means that the French and the Swiss, and maybe a half dozen others will cover us up with dust as they race by laughing and waving. Americans get exactly the government they deserve.