A little history lesson: the United States has not always been a major player in scientific research. In fact, Europe has a longer research tradition, and before WWII the US was looked upon as a bucolic place that had the advantages of a great deal of natural resources, but with only scattered centers of academic excellence, and most of the research was done by the independently wealthy at private colleges. I remember reading about Edwin Conklin, a big name developmental biologist at the turn of the last century, and being rather surprised that all of his work at marine stations was paid for out of his own pocket, a fact of life that was taken entirely for granted at the time.
All the big state colleges that are the backbone of our research efforts now were founded as either agricultural schools or normal, or teaching, schools. They were not intended to be major research centers. You’d go to State U to learn how to farm, or in a few place, mine, or how to become a public school teacher. In my grandparents’ day, that was the default: you’d scrimp and save to send the oldest son to college to prepare him to inherit the family farm, and maybe you’d send the oldest daughter off to learn to be the local school marm.
That all changed with WWII and the work of Vannevar Bush, who saw an opportunity to harness the potential brain power of the country. You don’t think Europe hoped for our entry into the war because we’d bring in high tech wonder weapons, do you? We were a big reserve of manpower for cannon fodder and iron for ships and artillery. The Brits (and the Germans) were the eggheads. Bush was the man who transformed everything in this country, providing resources through the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development to fund innovative science and cultivate an atmosphere that valued research at our universities. Everything that we appreciate about American science flowed out of the investment of federal funds in the research enterprise via the OSRD, which eventually metamorphosed into the National Science Foundation, the major source of basic research funding. (The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is also huge, but as you might guess from the name has more of an applied research focus on biomedical research, although plenty of basic research also gets smuggled in).
A chill should run down your spine when Trump’s pick for the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, suggests that
… what might be the best question: do we really need government funded research at all. The context of that question was a rambling post in which he raised a whole lot of, to his mind, unanswered questions about the Zika virus.
Brazil’s microcephaly epidemic continues to pose a mystery — if Zika is the culprit, why are there no similar epidemics in countries also hit hard by the virus? In Brazil, the microcephaly rate soared with more than 1,500 confirmed cases. But in Colombia, a recent study of nearly 12,000 pregnant women infected with Zika found zero microcephaly cases. If Zika is to blame for microcephaly, where are the missing cases? According to a new report from the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), the number of missing cases in Colombia and elsewhere raises serious questions about the assumed connection between Zika and microcephaly.
He was wrong about just about everything, as the linked article explains, but still what strikes me is that he’s pointing out all these difficulties, and raising all these questions (see those question marks? Scientists are the people who bring up those question marks and then try to answer them), and he’s then using the questions as a reason to avoid funding the process of resolving them. This is a man who doesn’t understand the whole point of research, to the point that he considers the possibility of not funding it at all. He’d like to roll back American science to the 1920s.
I can tell you personally what that would be like: you’d reduce American science to places like my lab. I’ve worked at Research 1 universities, and this is a whole ‘nother animal. I have no federal funding — a few of my colleagues do get small NSF grants now and then, but it’s hard to persuade the agencies to support small schools, especially when grant money is incredibly tight. I have a tiny lab space that also does double-duty as a class lab when I teach small upper level courses (many of my colleagues across the country will be jealous: they have no lab of their own, but do have classroom space that can do double-duty as a research lab when they aren’t teaching). I keep up with small supplies — pipettes, paper towels, that sort of thing — with maintenance money from the department.
My chief research tool, a microscope, was purchased with a state grant, part of the building fund that paid for renovations of the old science building and construction of a new wing. It isn’t really my scope; it’s a shared resource for all of the biology faculty that just happens to be kept in my lab.
I’ve been lucky in that I do have an independent, but small, revenue stream. All the additional equipment in my lab, like my digital camera system and animal maintenance stuff, is paid for with…blogging money! Yes, real student research is being supported by those obnoxious ads you see springing up around here. Now try to imagine a world-class biology research unit (not mine) with dozens of grad students and a gang of post-docs and a couple of technicians and the latest, cutting edge research tools that burn through reagents that cost more than my annual salary trying to support themselves by creating a popular blog and sprinkling it with ads for the latest fad food that will help you lose weight.
That isn’t going to happen.
The kinds of research I can do are limited. The latest project is one that Edwin Conklin would have understood perfectly in 1905, using tools that would have been considered high-tech in 1978, but I think we’ll be able to eke out a little bit of useful data, a tiny contribution to the body of evidence. My main contribution is that I can teach students to think like scientists, even with our limited resources, so they can go off to research careers at bigger places…which would cease to exist if Mick Mulvaney had his way.
I am not complaining about my situation. This is actually what I wanted, a place where I could focus on teaching, didn’t have to spend all my time writing hard-to-get grants, and could still work independently in a small lab. It’s perfect for me. It is not at all ideal if you want a national source of advanced research. You’re just going to have a lot of people like me training eager, ambitious kids for possibilities that you’ve eliminated.
That’s not the worst of it.
Suddenly, the federal government has decreed that USDA scientists may not talk about their work in public. This is antithetical to the whole point of doing science!
The EPA has frozen all of its grants. Environmental scientists have also been told they can’t communicate with the public.
The CDC has pre-emptively canceled a climate change meeting. Why? I suspect they’re battening down the hatches, preparing for some lean years, and investing in a meeting that will just get canceled by the administration is an unwise choice.
The National Park Service is being censored. Badlands National Park has had tweets deleted that discussed the evidence for climate change. “Rogue” elements of the park service have resorted to disseminating information under aliases.
All this in just the first four days of the Trump regime taking office. It takes far less time to demolish an institution than it does to build one up. Vannevar Bush’s contributions took decades to bear fruit, and Trump is determined to burn them all down in days.
And taking a wrecking crew to science isn’t even the worst thing he has done! He aims to wreck public education with the appointment of Betsy DeVos — even my small lab becomes pointless if that stream of eager, ambitious students dries up. Congress is busily trying to prohibit all family planning. How’s this for irony?
Making it (Hyde) permanent is not just important for the moral fiber — fabric of our country, but you’ll see millions more lives saved by us taking this important action,House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, told reporters Tuesday.
I remember Henry Hyde, corrupt Catholic, philanderer and adulterer. That his name is invoked at the same time as the words “moral fiber” is amazing hypocrisy.
So, in this time of turmoil, when injustice rules and inequity thrives, when all is to be subordinated to the selfish greed of a small number of extremely wealthy white people, I fear that the loss of American science is a tiny problem and will be lost in the chaos. It is shaping up to be an early casualty, though, and when faced with a thousand losses, triage is hard, and terrifying. We are looking at devastating losses to humanity on all fronts, thanks to the fact that we have elected an incompetent demagogue to lead the country, who is propped up by a political party that has become a garbage fire of epic proportions.
But we need to keep fighting for everything, every step of the way. A Scientist’s March on Washington is being organized. I don’t think it can have the impact of the Women’s March — we don’t have the numbers — but maybe if it’s a march intended to focus on one-on-one lobbying with congress, and to getting the press engaged, it can help.
Ultimately, though, the only thing that’s going to make a big difference is to depose the tyrant and banish him to a cozy retirement home where he can watch a lot of TV and do no further harm. We also have to basically delete the entire Republican party and grow a new, rational opposition party, one that will give the Democrats an incentive to actually do effective good for a change.
More on the Scientist’s March on Washington — it’s very preliminary, but I’ll be keeping an eye on it.