01/15/2015 11:21 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Turning Science Into the New Welfare Queen


Ronald Reagan created a mythological character -- the "Welfare Queen" -- and taught America that it was OK to be racist, OK to hate poor people, and OK to resent paying taxes. More than 30 years later, a substantial number of Americans still believe that lazy black women make millions of dollars a year by popping out babies and signing them up for welfare.

In an article in Politico, Rand Paul attempts to create a mythology that he hopes will convince Americans to hate science. Paul knows that if he can get voters to resent scientific research as much as they resent minorities and poor people, then he and his fellow Republicans will be free to ignore inconvenient facts about climate change, population trends, and other data that goes against the Republican agenda.

Paul questions the wisdom of paying for research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF is the primary source of government funding for research in economics, mathematics, computer science, and social sciences -- basically things that Republicans don't understand. Paul pointed to a study of Tea Party activity on social media, another study to determine whether Turkish women wear a veil because it is fashionable, and other examples of what he considers wasteful spending. Like Reagan, Paul reduces his examples to the most inflammatory terms possible. An NSF grant for an interactive website designed to teach users about nutrition and how to combat obesity is reduced to "$258,000 for a website for the first lady's White House garden." Meanwhile, more than one-third of Americans -- 78.6 million people -- are obese, including many Kentuckians that Rand Paul was elected to represent.

The Kentucky senator wants us to believe that Republicans are not anti-science. They simply want to be responsible stewards of the taxpayers' hard earned money. But the $7.2 billion NSF budget represents less than 1 percent of the $1.1 trillion Cromnibus bill recently passed by Congress. Congress could eliminate the entire NSF program and still have 99 percent of the budget left. But through the magic of Republican magnification, one percent is really all you need. The food stamps program (TANF) amounts to only 2 percent of the total federal budget, but it generates much more than that in political capital for Republicans. Republicans in the House and the Senate could eliminate the entire NSF along with the entire food stamp program and still have 97 percent of the budget left.

Rand Paul has to know that reducing or even eliminating the NSF and other federal science research programs will not lead to any meaningful reduction of the federal budget. But discrediting science will make it more difficult for scientists to conduct credible research in a variety of issues, many of which would haved direct implications for politics and public policy. Reducing research on carbon emissions will discourage environmental regulations. Restricting research on the health implications of income inequality would only serve to preserve inequailty. It is not a stretch to imagine Republicans railing against government funded research on the impact of voter registration laws on the outcomes of elections. Warnings about climate change could be easily dismissed if credible independent scientists can no longer afford to study the problem. The favorite Republican catch phrase -- "I am not a scientist" -- would be transformed from a disclaimer to a badge of honor.

The thing about science is that you never know where these discoveries will lead. Research on the Tea Party's use of the Internet, to use one of Rand Paul's examples of wasteful spending, could lead to a better understanding of how all groups use social media, including groups that might not be friendly to the United States or to American citizens. An investigation of what motivates Turkish women to wear a veil could lead to a better understanding of Islamic culture and the attitudes of women who live in it. Is it possible that not every veil-wearing Muslim woman is a terrorist? That might be a good thing to know.

Today's silliness is tomorrow's norm. It is not hard to imagine a 1960s version of Rand Paul criticizing government spending on a ridiculous program designed to see if computers can talk to one another. We cannot afford to dismiss questions simply because their potential relevance cannot be appreciated by a Tea Party Congressman. Just as Reagan wanted us to believe that it is OK to be racist, Rand Paul wants us to believe that it's OK to be ignorant. It's OK to resent money spent on scientific research, regardless of the potential benefits of that research.

Rand Paul wants us to believe that science is too expensive, a luxury that we cannot afford. The reality is that Republicans cannot afford an informed electorate that engages in critical thinking. We cannot afford to stop learning. We can't afford to stop asking questions.

If the Congressman wants to portray the Republican War On Science as a budgetary crisis, then he might want to check his facts.

Bob Seay is the Editor of