Week in Review: June 26

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Advocates for ACES Act, Simon Singh takes on British chiropractic, and what’s ailing American universities might be America.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

A Who’s Who in Favor of Waxman-Markey

The Woods Hole Research Center—one of Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren’s stomping grounds before he took over at the Office of Science and Technology Policy—has sent an open letter from 20 scientists and policy advocates to President Obama calling on him to push forcefully for Waxman-Markey’s American Clean Energy and Security Act. In it, the authors call the ACES Act the first step in America’s national fight against climate change, “the basis for a serious, continuing, and urgent effort on the part of the President to lead the American public into recognition of the scale of the climatic disruption so that the U.S. will embrace still stronger policies to do what we know from scientific investigation is necessary to prevent disastrous climatic alteration.” One can almost see their point, but alas, the bill has far less to do with what is necessary to prevent climate change than it does with tricky accounting. Imagine a similar memorandum going around at Enron in the late 1990s, arguing that the company’s debt situation was untenable. The accountants might have said to themselves, “Let’s create a new company to offset some of this debt!” Anyone who can handle the rigors of off-balance sheet accounting seems an ideal candidate for keeping track of carbon emissions under the mechanisms that Waxman-Markey will allow; someone should tell Jeffrey Skilling’s parole officer when they finally let him out of jail. The real risk seems to lie not in failing to pass a bill now, but in its potential to lull people into a false sense of security about carbon emissions. Sophisticated juggling of spreadsheets will mean naught if in 2030 the gang at Mauna Loa Observatory can still tell us that atmospheric carbon levels have not gone down.

On Behalf of Simon Singh

Most doctors think that chiropractic medicine is not medicine, that its fundamental theories are unscientific, and that its treatments are unfounded. I’m happy to say this from a vantage in the US, where my opinion and my right to it are protected (although this may put a damper on my planned trip to London). Pity Simon Singh, then, who recently lost a libel suit brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, who he rightfully claimed advocate for unscientific medical treatment. He is appealing his case—at considerable financial risk to himself—but he is not alone. The British science-advocacy charity Sense about Science has initiated a petition to “keep libel laws out of science,” which, as of June 19, had 12,000 signatories. In yesterday’s issue of Nature, the editors donated a one-page advertisement to the cause. Whether Singh ultimately wins or loses his appeal, the support he is receiving is encouraging for the future of science in the UK and the world. Britain, the courts of which have long been known as attractive getaways for the thin-skinned seeking to make a pound, needs to revise its libel laws to protect the ability of scientists, journalists, and others to make sound arguments against bogus claims. One can reshuffle all the government positions one wants and talk about innovation until the speaker’s face is blue and the audiences’ ears are bleeding, but without an environment that encourages and protects intellectual honesty, those discoveries great and small that must sit at the origin of innovation will not happen, and Britain will languish. Of course, people have been complaining about Britain’s libel laws for years, and still nothing has been done. Perhaps this time will be different. If not, lucky for them, then, that their competitors have problems, too.

Renewing American Universities

What’s wrong with the American university, four leading members of Congressional science committees want to know. The four legislators sent a letter to that effect Monday to the respective heads of the US national academies of sciences, engineering, and medicine. A similar letter in 2007 asked the academies to investigate whether American economic might was under threat, and what could be done to bolster it; the ensuing investigation led to the 2007 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. This time, the Congressmen would like to know what threatens American intellectual might, and what they might do about it.

The signatories are reassuringly bipartisan—signing the letter were Senators Barbara Mikulski, Democrat and chair of the appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding science, and Lamar Alexander, Republican and member of the same, as well as Representatives Bart Gordon and Ralph Hall, chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Science and Technology. And it would be surprising to hear anyone speak ill of the requested investigation. More funding; better public-private coordination between government, academia, and industry; and better preparation for all college-bound high-school students, all seem like uncontroversial things that such a report could single out. Controversy, indeed, seems like the last thing such a report would stoke. It should be the first, because a general examination of the baleful situation confronting American universities—especially public research universities—should lead to a general indictment of American political culture.

It is not enough to point at Republicans, as some have done, nor is it fair to blame them as a group for such unfortunate moments as Governor Sarah Palin’s deeply ignorant attack on studies of fruit-fly genetics, or the insistence from some corners that carbon dioxide couldn’t possibly be harmful; as one of them asked, essentially: Dontcha know that it’s food for plants? (Indeed I do, Representative Boehner. I also know that you can fertilize crops with horse shit, but I still wouldn’t recommend keeping tons of it around.) The Republican members of the House Science Committee, for example, are not known for being flat-earthers. Still, there is something to a systematic critique of the party and its willingness to play fast and loose, or just to disregard utterly, well-founded science. The Democrats aren’t necessarily better: For every staunchly pro-science one, it doesn’t take much looking to find another who will put some narrow self-interest ahead of sound public policy.

It’s not hard, then, to imagine that an environment rife with so much outright hostility to knowledge might hamstring the research institutions charged with safekeeping what we do know and pursuing what we don’t. But the problem runs deeper than just the unseriousness with which many of America’s elected leaders go about their work. The voters of California, where the universities are facing a 25 percent reduction in their budgets as the state itself teeters on the edge of a spectacular bankruptcy, recently were unable to agree on any means of easing that state’s budget woes save forbidding pay raises to legislators while the state runs a deficit. The state’s electorate, which has a history of rejecting taxes while demanding such expensive projects as California’s stem cell initiative and generally debunking through its actions any argument in favor of direct democracy, deserves as much blame for the fiscal weakness of the state’s universities as the state’s generally incompetent legislature. What might ail the American university, then, might not be a question for the head of the NAS. Mikulski, Gordon, Alexander, and Hall need just ask their colleagues and their constituents about the importance of science and universities—and the importance of paying for them—to the United States. The responses will be telling.

Originally published June 26, 2009

Tags carbon education policy politics research

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