Friday, November 26, 2010

Life Lines 54


During war or the threat of war, there is an alliance between science and government. We think of the Manhattan Project giving us atomic weapons, the RadLab giving us radar, and the space program giving us spy satellites and the rockets to strike targets anywhere in the world. Without scientific cooperation there would be no weapons of mass destruction. Whether these are acts of patriotism, an unholy alliance, or a morally corrupted use of science is largely a reflection of our political priorities, ethics, and religious values. But during times of peace science is not a welcome guest when it raises questions about global warming, funding stem cell research, industrial polluters, safety standards for foods and other commodities, or the health consequences of a vast uninsured or underinsured underclass not favored by birth or luck to be raised in middle or upper class circumstances. Instead of wooing scientists (as they do if they need help in making weapons), governments tell scientists to “stick to their last” like shoemakers and not poke their noses into government where it doesn’t belong.

Let us assume science acts like an obedient dog and slinks off to another room, what are the consequences of mutual exclusion in peacetime? If the issue of climate change is real but not pushed into government concern, how prepared would we be for the long term damage of rising sea levels, more frequent storms, habitat destruction, droughts, and other disasters down the road? If jet travel around the world carries new germs from Asia, Africa, or the Americas and moves them in days or weeks around the world, how prepared would we be to respond when pandemics arise? If increased population and consumerism lead to greater and riskier demands on air transportation, production of pot-holed roads, and collapsing bridges, how do we repair or prevent these hazards and how much talent and budget do we set aside for it? If we do not provide health care to meet serious health needs, how much do we pay for lost wages, absenteeism for health reasons, and the higher costs of neglected diseases (like hypertension and diabetes) that could have been prevented? Clearly the voices of science should be heard. At present our system is defective. We have the National Academies of Science, which are funded by Congress and respond to its inquiries. We have an optional presidential science advisor who is appointed by the White House. We can do better. We need a more representative organization of sciences and there is one – it is privately funded by scientists themselves and it is called the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Virtually every scientist in the US is a member of the AAAS. Less than 1 percent of scientists are in the National Academies. The science advisor to the President should not be a political appointment. Science should be neither Republican nor Democratic. Its role should be advisory, for the President to reject or accept, but the advice should not be censored, as it presently is, to fit White House ideology. Finally we need a vast increase in science literacy throughout local, state, and federal government. I am not asking for scientists to run for President (e.g., Herbert Hoover was an engineer and not one of our most revered presidents). But we need more briefings by science of legislators, legislative staff, and long-range planning commissions so prevention and preparedness rather than hasty reaction and incompetence are our responses.

No comments: