Science is cool, but it has a nerdish reputation, eliciting images of pocket protectors, lab coats and thick glasses. Since no one wants to be a nerd, the hard sciences (other than healthcare related fields) are not the most popular undergraduate degrees in the country; instead, we tend toward business and the social sciences. Of course, not everyone needs to be so into science that they choose it for a career, but, with so much of our lives dependent on space age scientific advances, you’d think the hard sciences would be a little more popular.
This is why I love the idea of a Science Laureate of the United States. There has been a (surprisingly bipartisan) proposal floating around Congress that’s basically all pluses for science. It’s an honorary, unpaid position designed to go to someone who has a track record of getting the public excited about science. It costs nothing and, if it works, will help make science cool again. Win-win.
Maybe I’m wrong, though, because the American Conservative Union is having none of it. As reported in Science:
In a letter to other conservative organizations and every House member, [ACU Director of Government Relations Larry] Hart said the bill would give President Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint someone “who will share his view that science should serve political ends, on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases.” He also called the bill “a needless addition to the long list of presidential appointments.”
There is, of course, so very much wrong in so very few words, like the idea of science serving political ends.
Let’s get one thing straight right now: Climate change is a real thing. It’s not a made-up politico-science conspiracy to destroy oil and coal companies. Climate change studies have been peer reviewed and verified over and over again. The great thing about science is that it has no political affiliation. It is just the best way we have of understanding the world. Data is data, regardless of whether it is politically expedient or not. I think we would all love it if we could go on pumping carbon dioxide into the air without any adverse consequences. None of us would have to change our behavior at all. However, the data shows that’s not going to happen. You can either accept the data or not, and you can politicize that decision all you want. The proof will be in the pudding.
As for “the long list of presidential appointments,” Hart makes it sound like the hypothetical science laureate would be some kind of cabinet position. This isn’t the case. The idea is based off of the poet laureate, except without the stipend. So, for small-government Republicans, this should be better.
House Republicans even take issue with Hart’s characterization of the proposal:
A staffer for another co-sponsor, Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL), took issue with Hart’s characterization of the bill as a vehicle for the president to advance his political agenda. “This is not a presidential appointment, and there would be no taxpayer money involved,” the aide said. “This bill is simply a chance to show our children that discovery science is important and that science can be an exciting and rewarding career.”
Oh no! We can’t have children learning about science! Oooooh, the humanity!
The bill isn’t dead yet, however, just delayed a bit. It was initially considered so uncontroversial that it was scheduled to be fast-tracked. Now, it will be debated on the merits, and the bill’s sponsors are optimistic that it will pass. However, there are conservative groups out there who will oppose it regardless of what it says or how it’s passed. As long as scientists are allowed to talk about science, there will be opposition.
But Hart says that he’d like the bill’s supporters to clarify several provisions, including the number of laureates, length of service, and type of duties they would perform. And climate skeptic Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute says slowing the pace won’t change his organization’s stance on the bill. “There’s no way to make it work,” Ebell says. “It would still give scientists an opportunity to pontificate, and we’re opposed to it.”
“It would still give scientists and opportunity to pontificate, and we’re opposed to it.” That’s probably the saddest sentence I’ve ever read.
First, have you ever talked with a scientist about their work? Try it sometime. In even the most sheepish, introverted scientists you can see a glimmer of enthusiasm in their eyes that’s infectious. Giving a scientist a chance to “pontificate” – a.k.a. speak knowledgeably about a topic she or he has spent most of their lives studying – is probably the best thing ever.
It’s hard to find that in our everyday lives, however. It’s there if you seek it out, but we don’t always have time for that. A science laureate would send the message that we think science and science education is important. We’re not going to keep up with the world if we keep teaching kids that the Earth is 6,000 years old and human-caused climate change is a giant hoax.
Good, rigorous science, isn’t about politics. Whether or not we choose to listen to what it tells us, unfortunately, is.
Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center