Top 10 science-related items Bush omitted from the State of the Union.

President Bush delivers the State of the Union address. Credit: White House photo by Eric Draper

1. Global Warming

Given that global temperatures have increased by 0.53° C in the past three decades, and that the largest shift in recent climate history, from 20,000 to 10,000 years ago, was 5° C, the current rate of change is unprecedented: over 30 times as fast the previous record, according to Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers.

2. Nuclear Power as a Solution to Global Warming

While Bush did mention “clean, safe nuclear energy” in his speech, it was in the context of reducing dependency on foreign oil. Nuclear energy is the only currently available technology that can substantially alleviate the problem of global warming. Its impact on the environment is comparatively small, and while we don’t currently have the capacity to deal with nuclear waste, many scholars believe that it’s only a matter of time until we develop the means to burn nuclear waste itself. The simplest way to deal with waste would be to keep it on nuclear-plant sites until such technology is developed.

3. Energy Conservation

While Bush did make the oft-quoted statement that “we are addicted to oil,” he didn’t offer the most obvious solution for dealing with our addiction: quitting cold turkey, or at least cutting back. There was no mention of increasing use of public transportation, of buying more fuel-efficient cars, or of biking or carpooling to work to conserve energy. Most scholars believe that these measures won’t be implemented without government incentives, like tax subsidies for conservation, or disincentives, like increasing the tax on fossil fuels.

4. Nuclear Proliferation in Rogue States

Bush mentioned the news-leader on this issue, Iran, but did not talk at all about efforts to prevent nuclear secrets and nuclear material from escaping the former Soviet Union or North Korea.

5. Biotechnology

Bush spent a significant portion of the address hailing technology as the answer to innumerable problems. He promised significant funds for the physical sciences and for research into alternative energy, hailed the computerization of records as a possible solution to ballooning healthcare costs, and a proposed the funding of 70,000 additional science teachers.

But he spared no kind words for one area in which the US may be losing its edge: biotech. Instead, biotechnology was mentioned in the context of Bush’s criticism of it, including: human-animal chimeras, human cloning, and creating or implanting embryos for experiments. (Is it still okay to create and implant embryos for fertility purposes? Why not to cure disease?) Bush also mentioned buying, selling or patenting human embryos. While America frets over these issues, the rest of the world has the opportunity to seize the lead in stem-cell research.

6. Educational Freedom

“I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought…You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes,” said Bush on the only occasion when he went on record on the subject of intelligent design. Given the opportunity to clarify his position on biologists’, physicists’ and other scientists’ freedom to determine what constitutes science, Bush just ducked.

7. Alternative Energy Research

Bush recommended a 22% increase in funding for alternative energy research, which would amount to $2.2 billion over the next five years—or 5.8 percent of ExxonMobil’s annual net.

8. AIDS Prevention
The President devoted a paragraph to the treatment of AIDS, including the renewal of the Ryan White Act, which provides care for AIDS victims and support for their families; he also spoke of a new effort to work with churches to offer support and AIDS tests. What was missing? Funding for research on an AIDS vaccine, for one. As International AIDS Vaccine Initiative president Seth Berkley pointed out at the World Economic Forum, “The whole system for vaccines is not aligned properly—we have to find better ways to accelerate research, finance research and to create incentives for pharmaceutical companies.” The entire US health-care system is focused on treatment rather than prevention, with predictable consequences for the cost of health care.

9. Sex education as a Solution to the Issue of Abortion

As William Saletan pointed out in an recent New York Times op-ed, why not work on preventing abortion? “Give more money to Title X, the federal program that finances family-planning. Expand health insurance and access to morning-after pills. Educate teenagers about sex, birth control and abstinence,” wrote Saletan. Not to mention the effect that such efforts could have on rates of infection with sexually transmitted diseases—like AIDS.

10. The Looming Education Crisis

Bush failed to mention his recent cuts in student loans, his unfunded No Child Left Behind Act, and major increases in the cost of public education. As Michael Bérubé recently blogged: “Only twenty years ago, forty-five percent of Penn State’s budget was provided by public funds; back then, in-state tuition was $2562. Our level of state support is now down to 10 percent, and, not coincidentally, in-state tuition is $11,508.” And as Ross Douthat points out in the Atlantic Monthly: “The child of a family earning the median income…would have at least a 13 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four. A child from a family making more than $90,000, on the other hand, has a 50 percent chance of earning a BA over the same period.”

Dave Munger is a blogger at “Cognitive Daily,” a member of the ScienceBlogs community.

Originally published February 2, 2006

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