Science, not Silence
By Tamera Minnick
Do you know students who want to study nanotechnology? They could work with Dr. Sam Lohse at Colorado Mesa University. How about responses of American pikas to habitat loss? Try Dr. Johanna Varner. More interested in the fire history of the Colorado National Monument? Dr. Deborah Kennard is your person. Dr. Andres Aslan and students endeavor to understand the geology of large rivers like the Colorado.
Science is alive and well at CMU. But many scientists are worried.
Saturday, April 22, is the March for Science. Concerned individuals, not just scientists, will gather worldwide, including in Grand Junction, in support of scientific research and using evidence in policy development. The motto is “Science, not Silence.”
Bill Nye (the Science Guy) observed: “What profession doesn’t involve science? Lumberjack? Plenty of science. Bus driving? Hope you have a sense of momentum, torque, traction, and the passage of time. For me, science rules.”
How did we get to this dismal state?
This administration’s disdain for climate science and the EPA is well known. Nevertheless, the release of President Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint was stunning.
Most shocking was the proposed 20 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health. This agency supports medical research and “scientific studies that turn discovery into health.” Recent research gains in precision medicine include individualizing cancer treatment based on a person’s genes. Proposed cuts likely mean no new research grants in 2018.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research office is targeted for a 52-percent cut and elimination of the Sea Grant program. This program, established by Congress in 1966, supports 33 research centers. It is currently assisting communities to plan for and adapt to sea-level rise, including “sunny day flooding” already occurring from Miami to Boston.
Beyond the grimness of these budget cuts are additional disturbing patterns. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is staffed by a single person: Michael Kratsios, the deputy chief technology officer, whose lone degree is in political science.
Franklin Roosevelt recognized the importance of science leading up to World War II and established a prototype office. In 1976, after Richard Nixon tried to eliminate it, the OSTP was established by law “to provide for scientific and technological advice and assistance to the President.” During the George W. Bush administration, there were 50 OSTP staff; Barak Obama increased this to 130. Both appointed Ph.D. physicists as directors and chief science advisors.
The OSTP has advised presidents on responses to crises including the Ebola and Zika epidemics and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. They also advise on policies such as curbing antibiotic resistance and matching Russian exploration of the rapidly increasing ice-free Arctic Ocean.
Galileo was persecuted by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century due to his defense of the evidence that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Less known are modern examples of the dire, and sometimes fatal, consequences of spurning science.
Trofim Lysenko was an agronomist in Russia who rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of pseudoscientific notions about environmentally acquired characteristics. A parent who expects stronger children because of lifting weights during pregnancy would find a friend in Lysenko. He insisted the environment could turn wheat into weeds in an agricultural field and that planting ultrahigh densities of seeds was valuable because some plants would sacrifice themselves so that others would survive.
Lysenko found favor with Joseph Stalin and was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics. His flawed ideology controlled agricultural research from the 1940s to 1960s. Dissent was outlawed. After a mathematician caught a statistical error in his work, Lysenko declared mathematics had no role in biology. Meanwhile, scientists in the western world were advancing theory: Franklin, Watson, and Crick discovered the structure of DNA.
The physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out in 1964, “[Lysenko] is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular.”
Another sobering example is China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). Chairman Mao Zedong believed that steel could be produced from scrap metal in backyard furnaces. The result was inferior pig iron and entire forests being razed. Irrigation systems were built without engineers. China adopted Lysenko’s pseudoscience, which included forcing peasants to plow fields five feet deep. Mao promoted a campaign to rid China of sparrows. This campaign resulted in a locust plague since sparrows eat insects. These and other policies led to famine in which tens of millions of people died.
Why does science work? Its methodical practice is mightier than magical thinking. Francis Bacon introduced the scientific method in the early 17th century, emphasizing experiments. The strength of this approach is demonstrated in our daily lives by fertilizer, antibiotics, the eradication of smallpox, refrigeration, flush toilets and running water, and satellites.
Support science and join us Saturday, whether in Grand Junction, Denver or Washington, D.C.