Mid-term election: science implications I

Most of the results of the mid-term election are now in and can be reviewed on-line. Jeff Mervis at SCIENCE has a nice summer of what the changes in the House mean, here. My own sense is that with Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) as the likely chair for House Science, the tenor of that Committee’s relationship with the non-biomedical US Science R&D agencies is going to improve significantly. Specifically with regards to Climate Change, and more generally with regards to a less adversarial oversight role. I think that’s probably a good thing.

NASA and probably also NSF lost a key advocate in John Culberson (R-TX) as chair of CJS, the appropriations committee responsible for the two agencies. On the other hand, NASA will probably be able to finesse the timing of when they send a probe to Europa and NSF’s contacts with Chinese science may be a bit less fettered (although the one from the White House is still pretty hawkish).

Barbara Comstock’s loss in Virginia is complex. While she could be a thorn in the side of NSF (e.g. NEON), she was extremely supportive of the DC metro area federal workforce and this benefited science agencies who depend on expert staff to keep the wheels moving.

My sense is that NIH is still coming out of this smelling like a rose. A more conservative senate may put the brakes on some hot-button research topics, but in general, I am pretty  optimistic about the biomedical sector.


Humans are naturally curious….

Of course, we know that. And as a scientist, it’s a wonderful thing to get paid to be professionally curious. But too often, scientists and journalists, responding to the siren song of reductionism, act in their own worst interests and over-simplify what is inherently complex. Here is a wonderful piece ¬†by Amanda Ripley on her own experiences with this challenge in the context of the charged political times that we are currently experiencing. I was happily surprised, mid-way through the article, to find my colleague Sara Cobb quoted extensively.

Let’s not have science become a political football…

One of the great dangers for American science is that it will become increasingly politicized. The partisanship and economic frailty of our current times only exacerbates this risk. A politicized science is one that finds itself, just like any other faction or special interest group, as not credible because of bias and self-interest. And credibility is the fragile currency of science.

Indeed, science’s greatest historical failures, seem to have arisen out self-inflicted politicization. The Eugenics Movement comes to mind. Historically arising from Darwin’s work on biological evolution and natural selection, Eugenics emerged directly from that science, politicized inappropriately to the question of what characteristics constituted a more perfect individual–truly the stuff of political demagogs.

At a recent lunch table here in Washington, I was struck by the dichotomy between Republicans and Democrats over which climate science was to be believed–intelligent lay public members dutifully deferring to scientific research, but only so long as it conformed to their ideological positions.

I have seen the same odd Blue versus Red scientific wars in the areas of embryonic stem cell research, origin of life and more recently economics and it strikes me as damaging, both to scientists and to society, for which good science is so critically important to its welfare.

So as scientists, let’s strive to keep our science at arm’s length from the political wars. Understanding that unprincipled individuals will always be attempting to deploy the latest “finding” to support their own political positions.