Make America Smart Again

by Phil Anderson

“Science has always been at the heart of America’s progress. Science cleaned up our air and water, conquered polio and invented jet airplanes. Science gave us the Internet, puts food on our tables and helps us avoid pandemics. Science and technology are widely considered by economists to be responsible for at least half of American economic growth since World War II. Defunding science is the intellectual equivalent of eating our seed corn.” Denis Hayes, LA Times editorial.  

Suffering through the drought and heat of this summer reminds me of the folly of ignoring the evidence of science. As I wrote in 2017 (and update here), denying science is like “eating our seed corn.” It is a recipe for disaster.  

Reading this week's headlines reminds me of the folly of our ignorance based public policy. Little is being done to deal with climate change despite overwhelming evidence that it is a serious man-made problem. The Gulf of Mexico “dead zone is expanding and is now the size of Massachusetts. Researchers in Rocky Mountain National Park have found tiny bits of plastic in the rain. Yet another chemical (PFAS) is poisoning ground water around military bases. In Wisconsin the Republican legislature has refused to fund cleaning up lead in the drinking water even though lead affects child brain development. In Minnesota the politicians are ignoring the warnings from scientists about sulfide mining. Nationally the Embarrassment-in-Chief continues to display his total ignorance of every topic imaginably and to appoint people inexperienced and unqualified for high level positions. The most recent case was, ironically, for a director of national intelligence.  

National “intelligence” is an oxymoron. In America today faith, delusion, denial, and ignorance are widespread. Foolish, short sighted, self-destructive behavior is everywhere at all levels of society. We don't need to be great. We need to be smarter.             Knowledge based, rational public policies are good for everyone. It is good for the economy. It is good for business. Massive cuts in science, technology, and education are not in anyone's best interest. The wisdom of public investments in these areas has been demonstrated by past experience. Ignoring science, and failing to use the best knowledge based advice, is a huge a mistake.  

In the Los Angles Times, Mr. Hayes, former head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, provides an excellent example. President Carter advocated funding research in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy possibilities. He set a national goal of getting 20% of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2000. Carter famously had solar panels installed on the White House. Given the oil supply crises of 1973 and 1979, this was an obviously reasonable course of action. But President Reagan, for political reasons, slashed the solar research staff by 40%, reduced its budget by 80%, and abruptly terminated over 1000 university research contracts. Symbolically Reagan had the solar panels removed from the White House! In the 1970's the U.S. had more solar patents and made more solar panels than the rest of the world combined. But the Reagan cuts drove many researchers into other fields and severely hurt renewable energy development.  

Although the industry eventually recovered, the U.S. lost its leadership position. Many years of delay hurt the environment and the economy. Nearly all solar panels are now being developed and manufactured abroad. The U.S. makes just 5% of the world’s solar panels. Denmark leads the world in wind power. Even though U.S. production of renewable energy has increased by more than 300 percent in the past decade, the U.S. still lags far behind Europe and some third world countries in use of renewable energy. Renewable electricity is only about 13% of the U.S. total. By contrast, Costa Rica is now producing 98% of its electricity from renewable sources.  

The good news is many business leaders recognize the folly of rejecting alternative energy technologies. In Wisconsin two major energy companies are building two major solar farms to generate 450 megawatts of power. These facilities are expected to provide clean energy, make money for the companies, and save consumers over $40 million over the 30 year life of the project. The Green New Deal is sensible and good for business. It is pure folly for the Republicans to be opposing this progress.   Past experiences shows that fostering education, science, and knowledge based public policy works and produces a better society for everyone. The GI Bill sent unprecedented numbers of former soldiers to college after WW2 and helped fuel many technological developments we now enjoy. The land grant public universities like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa have educated many people and led to many advancements in agriculture, food safety, health, and technology. In the 1950s, science based hunting and fishing regulations restored wildlife populations decimated in earlier decades. OSHA has cut workplace deaths in half in recent decades.  

Failure to heed scientific research has often produced negative impacts. Fish populations all over the world are in serious trouble due to over fishing. Experts predicted the crash of the cod fishery in New England. Their science based recommendations for regulation were not politically popular and were ignored. The industry is now gone. Similar stories occurred with oysters in the Chesapeake and Gulf of Mexico. Also herring and anchovy fishing on the west coast. Commercial fishing in Lake Superior employs many fewer people than in the past but it still survives because of strong regulation.  

The current administration's record on evidence, knowledge, or science based public policy is abysmal. There is not space here to list all the bad decisions. Basically everything they have done (or failed to do) has been based on ignorance, self-interest, political posturing, or blind ideological dogma. Regardless of one's political philosophy, it should be obvious that America will not become great, or even survive, following this poor quality leadership.  

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sums up the issues well, "... when it comes time to make decisions about science, it seems to me people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not; what is reliable, what is not reliable; what should you believe, what should you not believe. And when you have people who don’t know much about science standing in denial of it, and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy."  

It is also a recipe for the decline and fall of America.