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Opinion

America Cannot Take a Four-Year Sabbatical from Science

Thousands of people in 610 cities across 69 countries marched for science on Earth Day, April 22. Why?

Self-driving cars are starting to appear on city streets, artificial intelligence is making huge strides, CRISPR is opening up new opportunities in genetic engineering … surely science is doing great!

But science is under threat. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calls for the most comprehensive retreat from scientific leadership in the nation’s history, with drastic cuts to all corners of publicly funded science. The National Institutes of Health would lose nearly $6 billion — a fifth of their budget. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development would see nearly half of its budget go up in smoke. The Energy Department, which, among other things, undertakes basic research to make renewable energy more competitive, would have its budget cut 18 percent (excluding its nuclear work). Its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy office (ARPA-E), at the vanguard of energy research, would be eliminated outright. The National Science Foundation would apparently be cut by almost 10 percent. Only NASA seems spared, though its critically important climate research would take a beating.

On top of the egregious proposed funding cuts, science is being assaulted by even deeper and more pernicious forces: the spread of fake news, the exacerbation of partisanship, and the rise of populism and its anti-expert credo. Science is being ignored and discredited, instead of serving as a common ground for sensible policymaking.

Congress must stand up to Trump’s proposed science cuts, and stick to its time-honored bipartisan support for basic research. Historically, scientific advancement has been a national goal with bipartisan support for agencies ranging from NIH to NASA. Early on, our founding fathers understood the importance of America being a leader in science — indeed, several of them engaged in scientific research themselves. During World War II, to maintain competitiveness on the battlefield, lawmakers founded what would become the National Science Foundation. America’s leadership in science research has enabled America to be the global leader it is today.

Congress must also, once again, pay attention to what scientists are saying and use science as a basis for policymaking. The banning of leaded gasoline, closing the hole in the ozone layer, cleaning hazardous waste, ending acid rain — all resulted from strong congressional support based on scientific guidance. In 1970, it was scientific discovery, combined with growing concern over air and water quality, that spurred President Nixon and Congress to form the EPA. Thanks to Congress and the EPA’s protection of air quality through the Clean Air Act, it is estimated that approximately 160,000 lives were saved in 2010, and 230,000 lives will be saved in 2020.

In 1988, Congress again heard from scientists — this time about the emerging threat of climate change. The Global Change Research Act was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and the United States seemed to be on the path toward climate action. Unfortunately, growing partisanship and blatant disinformation has frayed the consensus and slowed — or even reversed — progress. We are counting on our elected officials to accept the facts — that man-made carbon emissions are causing the climate to change — to put partisanship aside, and to implement sustainable solutions.

The March for Science’s supporters insist their cause isn’t partisan, but it is political. Science and policy go hand in hand; the best policy has always been driven by science, and has helped protect and better the lives of all Americans. Let’s keep it that way.

 

Jared Blum is the board chair for the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (www.eesi.org), a nonprofit organization founded by a bipartisan congressional caucus that advances innovative policy solutions for clean, secure and sustainable energy. 

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