State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Federal Dysfunction Continues to Underfund Science and Infrastructure

Tesla’s effort to commercialize a home battery system was a big news story last week. In contrast, the Republican-controlled House Science Committee’s reauthorization proposal for American science research received very little media attention. I link these two events because they represent the positive and negative trends influencing our transition to a sustainable, renewable economy. The home battery looks snazzy but is still too expensive and stores too little energy to be transformative. Still, Tesla’s innovation is a clear step in the right direction. Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, the House Republicans are attacking climate science and social science while keeping overall science funding flat. Even though our economy is growing, and increasingly based on human brainpower, the proportion of our GDP invested in science will continue to go down.

In what some might consider an unrelated development, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that investment in American port facilities was lagging behind demand. Inadequate port facilities were causing delays and increased shipping costs as our ports struggled to handle the volume generated by a new generation of super-sized freight ships. According to Wall Street Journal reporters Arian Campo-Flores and Cameron McWhirter:

“The problem didn’t happen overnight. Investment by federal, state and local governments in U.S. ports and surrounding infrastructure—such as roads and rail lines—mostly dried up during the recession. And declining cargo volumes squeezed ports’ finances, limiting their ability to make significant investments in bigger cranes and other improvements… Now, ports are scrambling to catch up. They lag some foreign counterparts, which rely on unmanned cargo-handling machines to efficiently move, stack and retrieve containers.”

The problem was even recognized by our dysfunctional Federal House of Representatives which last week passed a spending bill that would provide more funding for American ports. But as Robbie Whelan of the Wall Street Journal reported:

“The plan passed by a relatively comfortable 240-177 vote. But it faces an uncertain future in a full Congress that has been unable to pass annual spending bills in most recent years and is likely to advance a continuing resolution later this year that would do little more than carry current spending levels forward.”

Funding ports and scientific research should be ideologically neutral pieces of consensus in American politics. But in the toxic environment of the American Congress we can’t even do the easy stuff. For the Republican right-wing, all government actions seem to be illegitimate. They appear to give the military a pass, but according to the Tea Party, little else that government does is worth doing.

This is the result of decades of attacks on government starting over 50 years ago with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign and continuing with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Presidential campaign when Reagan declared that government could not help solve America’s problems because America’s government was the cause of America’s problems. That once extreme position has now become an almost centrist truism. When Goldwater expressed these views in his 1964 speech accepting the Republican nomination he felt compelled to defend his extremism making the argument that: “… extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Today, Goldwater would probably be seen as a moderate. The delegitimizing of the federal government is so hardwired into our political culture that doubts about the utility of our national government have become an accepted part of our political center.

In a time when the global economy places us in constant competition with other nations, our inability to forge effective public-private partnerships may well be the greatest long-term threat to America’s economic and political power. Much of our post-World War II wealth was derived from the science and engineering innovations that originated in our national laboratories and in America’s great research universities. Alone among the great powers, America invested billions in defense and non-defense science and technology. The research produced in American laboratories would find their way into consumer products ranging from refrigerators to computers; from medicines to smart phones; from food to the internet.

We developed an amazing research capacity by allowing scientists utilizing merit-based peer review to govern research priorities and funding. Today, Congress has decided to interfere with that successful tradition. The politicization of science may have been inevitable, but it is a slippery slope. Some of the causes of this trend relate to scientists attempting to deploy their knowledge in political debate. Their expertise and ability in science doesn’t always translate well into a deep understanding of politics, economics and culture. Nevertheless the main cause of the politicization of science has not been unsophisticated advocacy by scientists, but the growing force of money in politics. Entrenched interests do not typically support development of transformational technologies that might impair their economic dominance. The fossil fuel companies are not interested in Tesla developing a $300 (not $3,000) battery that stores energy for two weeks instead of two hours. They don’t trust the science establishment to protect their interests; they rely on their allies in the Congress for that.

The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health should be given broad and general policy direction and then be allowed to set their own priorities. The lawyers in Congress do not know enough to get into the scientific weeds and they should be more judicious in their efforts to assert democratic control. While I do not question their right and responsibility to govern this part of the government, I worry about their use of ideological lenses to do so. While the scientific method and rational thought can be seen as an ideology too, it provides a perspective for relatively free inquiry that is central to the growth of knowledge and innovation. While I hope we can all agree that the growth of knowledge and new patterns of thought and discovery are worthwhile goals, I know that not everyone thinks so.

One would think that investments in ports and roads and maybe even mass transit would be less controversial than science. Nevertheless, if government and taxation are our enemies, then infrastructure investment is just as tough as funding science. This is a return of sorts to our American roots. When New York’s DeWitt Clinton proposed the Erie Canal, President Thomas Jefferson refused to support it and a few years later President James Madison vetoed a bill to fund it. Clinton relied on state and private funding to build the canal, which had a profound effect on the development of New York City and State, leading to commercial dominance that in New York City continues to this day. The Erie Canal may well be the most successful infrastructure investment in American history.

When Americans travel abroad and see high-speed rail in Europe and Asia, and walk through airports that are far more advanced than the ones we build at home, they are seeing the impact of government infrastructure investment on daily economic life. When our cars bounce on poorly paved roads, or we wait for hours to receive underfunded government services, it is important to understand that we are seeing the impact of anti-government ideology in action.

The capitalist marketplace can do many things, but it can’t do everything. Modern economic life requires that government play an active role in building and financing common resources. Transportation, communication, water, energy, security, health, education, research and environmental protection all require an active government. Many of these activities are best pursued when government, non-profits and private for profit organizations work together as part of a team. However, as long as our federal government’s dysfunction continues to underfund science and infrastructure, we will be unable to develop the types of partnerships needed to compete in the 21st century’s brain-based global economy.

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