We no longer invest in knowledge. I write this while listening with one eye and one ear attuned to the weather report – I am in Florida and Hurricane Irma is on its way. I realized that I now focus on the European weather model to track the storm. I find it to be more accurate than the US models as do others.
It is, of course, an exaggeration to say we no longer invest in knowledge. As a nation, billions are invested in knowledge. We are still the top ranked nation in terms of dollars invested. However, my sense of diminishing governmental support for science does have some support. Science Magazine’s analyses shows the share of government funding of basic research dropped below 50% for the first time since WWII. The amount of absolute dollars provided by the government peaked almost a decade ago. As a percentage of GNP, it is at the lowest levels since at least 1976 (AAAS). While these data are crude measures a trend seems to be emerging.
Research dollars, and who funds it, are not the only way to assess a society’s commitment to science. PEW Polling data suggests that more of us seem to be developing a negative view of the role of science in policy making.
Others have noticed this possible shift in attitudes as well. Tom Nichols’ thoughtful and cogent article in Politico, about how we are killing expertise, makes a similar point.
Other signposts include appointments to of authority in agencies that are science oriented. These signs are also not encouraging. The Environmental Protection Agency has installed a number of ‘climate deniers’ in key positions. The nominee to head NASA is a politician with no scientific credentials. The Department of Agriculture science advisor nominee is also a non-scientist. The list goes on and is being tracked by a number of highly reputable organizations, , including Scientific America, Propublica, and Union of Concerned Scientists.
As the director of a scientific organization, I try to be attuned to the political environment and the factors that impact our work. One of the factors diminishing the voice of science is the threat that research can have to entrenched political and financial interests. The climate change ‘debate’ is a classic debate between interests that are trying to protect their assets and scientifically inferences. It is not a debate about interpretation of the data. You can follow some of the money here and draw your own conclusions. Does this seem reminiscent of the banishment Galileo suffered when the Church felt threatened by a heliocentric solar system? It is not a new battle, but one that appears to become larger at some points in our history.
It is one thing, albeit not a good one, if this threat to scientific understanding was able to be contained to climate change. But I fear a contagion effect that spills over to a general assault on science, the science method itself, and the people doing science. The leader of the free world has an outsized influence and when he bases some of his views on his own logic rather than years of systemic work involving scientists from around the globe, the danger of that message being assimilated into the culture is real. In addition to climate, he has challenged science on drought; hairspray and the impact on the ozone layer; vaccines; and a belief that some types of lightbulbs cause cancer.
Our organization was founded by scientists to apply scientific knowledge to real world projects, like our recently opened early learning center, East Tampa Academy. Assuming our research-based school is supported by outcome data and the kids do much better academically than neighboring schools, that represents a good example of using the scientific process to bring positive changes. However, just as climatologists face entrenched interests, we are concerned about facing a similar scenario. We are aware of the possibility of an uphill battle. We need to seize a narrative that resonates. Knowing and showing what works is not always enough.