Panel bemoans U.S. loss of scientific leadership

From the Washington Post, 29 May 2008

NEW YORK — Some of the nation’s leading scientists, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s top science adviser, [on 28 May 2008] sharply criticized the diminished role of science in the United States and the shortage of federal funding for research, even as science becomes increasingly important to combating problems such as climate change and the global food shortage.

Speaking at a science summit that opens this week’s first World Science Festival, the expert panel of scientists, and audience members, agreed that the United States is losing stature because of a perceived high-level disdain for science.

They cited U.S. officials and others questioning scientific evidence of climate change, the reluctance to federally fund stem cell research, and some U.S. officials casting doubt on evolution as examples that have damaged America’s international standing.

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Despite the bleak message of this article, I believe that it is a short-term phenomenon and we are already seeing signs of a turnaround.

My context is Chris Mooney’s challenging 2005 book, The Republican War on Science, which I reviewed favorably (clicking above link get you to my review) but not without some initial reservations about the title. After all, politicians on both sides of the aisle are prone to abuse science if it suits their purpose.

Still, Mooney’s points were well taken. Due to a confluence of political forces, the Republican party during the middle years of the Bush administration was systematically sowing doubt about the value of science. Many Republicans are continuing to take that stance, but I was encouraged to see that their apparent presidential nominee is more respectful of science.

For example, Senator McCain has made it apparent that he accepts the scientific consensus on global warming and intends to move toward more cooperation with other nations to mitigating its impact. Likewise, I don’t see him as pushing the Religious Right’s agenda on Intelligent Design. (Stay tuned for an upcoming book review on that subject.)

He probably will have to continue pandering to his base on stem-cell research, but to me, he represents a sign that the Republicans have figured out that abusing science is no longer going to be a successful political tactic. The Democrats have known that for some time, though some are guilty of overstating the case to the point that an urgent message of warning becomes counter-productively shrill.

Once the rest of the world recognizes that the American political system is treating science with respect again (though the abusers will still be getting more attention than they deserve), the unique American ability to capitalize on new ideas and generate breakthrough technologies will again propel us to the forefront.

The worst of The Republican War on Science and this country’s corresponding disdain for scientific findings seems to be over. We still have a long way to go, and I personally think that electing more Democrats to Congress and electing a Democratic President will speed up the process of restoring the USA to leadership in science and technology.

But I also think the scientific panel’s conclusions reflect the recent past more than the future.

I hope this posting leads to lots of discussion. Please avoid personal attacks and discuss your views of the USA’s future as a leader in science and technology. I plan to stay out of this unless someone attacks me personally. Disagreeing with my views is fair game. I’ll allow this post, my blog postings and my many book reviews to speak for themselves.

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