Scientists are regarding it as yet another attack on science by a political party that has, in the words of GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, become "the antiscience party."
A 2012 spending bill expected to be approved this week slashes the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) budget by a whopping 32 percent. The cuts "will have real consequences on OSTP's operations," said spokesperson Rick Weiss.
The OSTP is the White House's overall coordinating agency for federal science initiatives ranging from clean energy research to economic competitiveness to space exploration to climate change to education.
Cutting the top office responsible for insuring scientific integrity in government is the latest action by a Republican party whose leadership seems to be prosecuting an assault on science at almost every level, including House Speaker John Boehner's attempts to have creationism taught in science classes and his false assertion that climate scientists are arguing carbon dioxide is a carcinogen.
Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the House appropriations panel that oversees NASA and the OSTP, is a fierce opponent of the Chinese government and doesn't want any cooperation between the US and China. "Frankly, it boils down to a moral issue," said Wolf. "Would you have a bilateral program with Stalin?" Wolf inserted two sentences into the April 2011 spending bill that prohibit any joint scientific activity between the two nations that involves NASA or is coordinated by the OSTP.
But that ban doesn't apply to the president's ability to conduct foreign policy, argued Science Advisor John Holdren in a May 4 congressional hearing. That authority, Holdren said, extends to a bilateral agreement on scientific cooperation that Holdren and China's science minister signed in January that builds on a 1979 pact that has generated activity between many U.S. agencies and their Chinese counterparts.
Science has, like business, gone global. It knows no geographical borders, and scientists are collaborating on projects around the world over the internet in unprecedented numbers. Science creates knowledge, and as Francis Bacon pointed out 400 years ago, knowledge is power. Politics is the exercise of power. Science is, by definition, inherently political and so scientific exchange is a part of diplomacy.
In October, the Government Accountability Office released a report that disagreed with the administration's position that scientific cooperation is part of diplomacy, and said that by conducting a May meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Holdren violated the law as expressed in Wolf's April bill language.
Wolf and House Republicans siezed on the report as a basis to punish the OSTP with a budget cut of 55%, effectively eliminating much of its research coordination, transparency, education and oversight roles in US science. Senate leaders subsequently reduced the cut to 9%, and this week the bill passed out of conference committee with a 32% "compromise" cut.
Wolf says his action is meant to prevent China from getting any US technology, but it is a bit like shooting yourself in the foot because you didn't maintain your driveway, walked into a pothole and twisted your ankle. Science and technology are responsible for more than half our economic growth since World War II, and drive close to 60% of our economic activity currently. But we have let science slide as a national priority in funding, education, and public dialogue for the last several decades.
US students, for example, fell from 7th in a 1972 ranking known as the First International Science Study to 23rd in the 2009 OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA ) report, falling below Hungary and just above the Czech Republic. This is far below China, whose world rankings were 1st (Shanghai), 3rd (Hong Kong), 12th (Taipai), and 18th (Macao) by region. This is one of the major priorities Holdren's OSTP has been trying to find ways to turn around -- particularly by focusing on science and math education -- a wholly wholesome and nonpartisan goal that benefits all American children.
"Whenever the people are well informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they can be trusted with their own government." We are poised to create as much new knowledge in the next 40 years as we have in the last 400 years. That poses a serious threat to American-style democracy at a time when so many of our problems revolve around science and so few of our students -- and policy makers -- value what science does for them enough not to turn it into a political football -- or even seem to understand its fundamental relationship to democracy, power, and politics. Are Americans still well-enough informed to be trusted with their own government?
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