Some science conflicts with Republican ideology, so it must be suppressed.
One of the nation’s leading climate change scientists is quitting the Agriculture Department in protest over the Trump administration’s efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Lewis Ziska, a 62-year-old plant physiologist who’s worked at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades, told POLITICO he was alarmed when department officials not only questioned the findings of the study — which raised serious concerns for the 600 million people who depend on rice for most of their calories — but also tried to minimize media coverage of the paper, which was published in the journal Science Advances last year.
I don’t think it was that groundbreaking. When I got here to UMM twenty years ago and started listening to plant biologists, this was a common and accepted conundrum: plants grown in CO2 enriched atmospheres would thrive happily but they were making more carbohydrates, which require only carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight, but things like proteins, which also require nitrogen, were being synthesized at the same or lower rate. You’d get loads of carbs at the expense of all the other nutrients we like in our food. Ziska may have been one of the plant physiologists who first advanced this concern — I wouldn’t know, it’s way outside my field — but what he is saying is not controversial or unusual now.
Well, not controversial to scientists. To politicians with an ideological anti-science axe to grind, it’s data that must be buried.
Ziska, in describing his decision to leave, painted a picture of a department in constant fear of the president and Secretary Sonny Perdue’s open skepticism about broadly accepted climate science, leading officials to go to extremes to obscure their work to avoid political blowback. The result, he said, is a vastly diminished ability for taxpayer-funded scientists to provide farmers and policymakers with important information about complex threats to the global food supply.
Ziska, or “Lew” as he’s known to his colleagues, has researched plants at USDA across five administrations, Republican and Democratic, contributing significantly to the country’s understanding of how rising carbon dioxide levels and changing temperatures affect everything from crops to noxious weeds and even plants grown to make illicit drugs.
The shifts in the USDA seem petty and trivial now, but they all add up to an effort to promote obscurantism when the science contradicted the political dogma of the right.
“We were careful,” he said. “And then it got to the point where language started to change. No one wanted to say climate change, you would say ‘climate uncertainty’ or you would say ‘extreme events.’ Or you would use whatever euphemism was available to not draw attention.”
Ziska said there was never a department memo that directed legions of USDA scientists to be more careful with their language, it was simply well understood.
The signals to scientists have been subtle but frequent. For example, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funnels hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to colleges and universities for food and agriculture research has dropped the term “climate change” from its requests for applications from scientists. Instead, the agency uses “climate variability and change.”
Practically every science textbook in the country — every one I’ve ever used, anyway — will have a section on the history of genetics that will mention Lysenko, the Soviet politician who was convinced that he could adapt any plant to the harsh Russian winters by vernalization, treating the seeds with exposure to cold so that they would acquire cold resistant traits. It didn’t work, but that didn’t stop him from promoting his wishful thinking, and getting the Soviet administration to censor (and imprison) people who pointed out the evidence was against him.
It’s interesting that we were all trained on this lesson with an example that involves climate and biology, and yet here we are, led by people who apparently never cracked an introductory science textbook, or they’d realize they’re repeating history.