Why science must get political


Writer’s Note: This Saturday, millions of people are planning to take to the streets for the March for Science. In this column, I explain why such directed action is necessary for the public good.

One of the more baffling things to come out of the 1990s was a Congressional appropriation that banned the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from funding research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This effectively ended all federally funded studies on gun violence, to the point where even private nonprofits rarely carry out such studies. Even an executive order from President Obama could not stimulate this research; Congress refused to appropriate money for it.

Refusing to collect and analyze data on a problem faced by one’s company would get even the most charismatic of CEOs fired. This is an obvious problem: as Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross noted in his confirmation hearing, anything that you cannot measure, you cannot manage. It is therefore both absurd and troubling that for almost 20 years, Congress has refused to even measure the problem of gun violence, indicating that it has no intention of managing it. As a result, attempts at enacting reasonable gun control — i.e., in a manner which reduces gun violence while protecting gun owners’ right to bear arms — have been killed over and over again. Without hard data, it is pretty much impossible to craft a solution that achieves both these goals, and we remain stuck in gridlock while thousands more people die from gun violence.

It is therefore extremely worrying to see that the new administration does not seem to care at all about data collection. In the administration’s budget proposal, it proposes gutting the research budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and eliminating a number of NOAA’s coastal research grants, halves the budget for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development and eliminates data-transparency programs like Energy Star. Additionally, it removes almost a fifth of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science budget and eliminates programs that improve access to energy efficiency data, it cuts the National Institute of Health’s budget by 19 percent and it cuts $667 million from disaster mitigation programs. Forget solving any of our problems like climate change, dirty energy, disease and poverty; the Trump administration has no intention of even pretending to manage them.

At the same time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has resurrected the chimera of “reefer madness,” ignoring the mountains of data that detail the relatively benign effects of marijuana on consumers and the outsize harmful effects of the war on drugs. He has also pledged to get “tough on crime” while crime rates have consistently gone down and to support an enhanced crackdown on illegal immigrants, especially from Mexico, when their numbers have been declining already and removing them further would create immense economic cost. If one wanted to describe Sessions’ thought process, it would be to take a look at all the data we have and do the exact opposite of what the data indicates we should do.

Any reasonable person would characterize this behavior as stupidity. One does not achieve better results by continuing the same failed policies of previous years or ignoring empirical data. Nor does one solve problems by pretending that they don’t exist, as this administration hopes to do with climate change. Yet, we see this phenomena on both the right and the left; on one side we have climate-change deniers, on the other side we have anti-GMO crusaders, and on both sides of the aisle we have anti-vaxxers. However, one party has elevated anti-science and anti-data beliefs to its party platform, while the other has not. That same party controls the Federal Government. It is thus beyond time to address the politics of science and empiricism.

As I have stated in previous columns, the state of scientific literacy among both politicians and the public is abysmal. As abysmal is the state of rational discourse; millions of Americans believe in nonsense conspiracy theories and creationism. While paranoid lunatics have always been a part of politics, they now have more power than they did before. The damage done to the collective by the fringe will therefore be much more than it ever was; the laws of physics will continue to work even if the President calls them “fake news.”

It is thus imperative that we have a movement to restore science and empiricism to the center of policy decision-making. It is also imperative that we renew public enthusiasm for fundamental science research. Without both of these things, not only will we fail to solve the most significant issues facing humanity, but we will actively take decisions that make the status quo worse based on the whims of cranky old men.


Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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