June 2, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

At a summit at the World Science Festival, panelists agreed that the U.S. is losing its stature as a leader in science. Panelists cited two reasons: diminished funding for research, and “a perceived high-level disdain for science.” Keith B. Richburg of the Washington Post explains:

Speaking at a science summit that opens this week’s first World Science Festival, the expert panel of scientists, and audience members, agreed that the United States is losing stature because of a perceived high-level disdain for science. They cited U.S. officials and others questioning scientific evidence of climate change, the reluctance to federally fund stem cell research, and some U.S. officials casting doubt on evolution as examples that have damaged America’s international standing.

“I think there’s a loss of American power and prestige that came about as a result of our anti-science policies,” said David Baltimore, a biologist and Nobel laureate and board chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Raising questions about the science of evolution, he said, “leads to a certain disdain for American intelligence.” He added, “What we need is leadership that respects science.”

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s science advisor, Nina Fedoroff, lamented that science in this country “has really kind of died” over the past 25 years and that other countries would be producing more scientists who “might not speak English.” I hope that she also had some more thoughtful and compelling things to say … or maybe not, but hey, we’ve already completely embarrassed ourselves in front of the rest of the world anyway.

It appears that this administration understands that science is important, and it’s good for a country to have a lot of top scientists doing cutting-edge research. It’s too bad that they don’t seem to understand that good science requires support. Funding is one obvious type of support (and Congress has to share some of the blame for inadequate research funding), but there’s also the matter of respecting scientists. If an administration consistently sends the message that it doesn’t what to hear what scientists have to tell them, then eventually they won’t have a whole lot of scientists around to tell them things.

This reminds me of what I wrote after Bush’s last State of the Union address, which contained lots of praise for all the things science was going to do for us:

Bush invoked technology as the cure for our energy and health care woes, and said this about the energy, medical, and physical sciences research that’s required: 

  • “To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology.”
  • “We must trust in the innovative spirit of medical researchers and empower them to discover new treatments while respecting moral boundaries.”
  • “To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow.”

In short, we’ve got to trust the scientists.

Bush’s appointees seem to have missed this memo. Over the past few years, reports of Bush administration interference with science have rolled in with an alarming frequency:

In these cases, Bush appointees evidently didn’t trust researchers or doctors enough to let them communicate their unedited views to government officials, media, or the public. (I’m not even getting into the many policy decisions – ranging from over-the-counter approval for an emergency contraceptive to California’s emission standards request — in which officials ignored scientists’ advice.)

Once again, the Bush administration seems to think it can get something for nothing. It’s time for them to realize that if you want good science to solve your problems, you have to respect, and fund, the scientists.

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