Science Policy in the Age of Trump and Beyond

By Robert Bernstein

Las Cumbres Observatory runs a unique global network of telescopes  for cutting-edge astronomical science and for science education. They hold frequent public outreach events to update the public on their astronomical research. We are fortunate that their worldwide home base is here in Goleta.

This past week they held a different sort of public meeting to discuss the big picture future of US science policy. Held at the New Vic Theater in Santa Barbara.

Here are all of my photos.

Las Cumbres Observatory President and Observatory Director Todd Boroson led off with an introduction

The speaker was Dr Joel R. Parriott of the American Astronomical Society. This is the professional society for astronomers. Dr Parriott was also Program Examiner at the US Office of Management and Budget from 2002-2012. An ideal combination to discuss this topic, it would seem.

Dr Parriott said he usually starts off his talks motivating the importance of science. With this Santa Barbara audience he decided we already were on board.

He showed this chart of key science and engineering public indicators. Regardless of education level, overwhelming majorities (80-90%) agree that the Federal Government should fund scientific research

Here is the crowd in Times Square as the Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars in August 2012. People love such projects

The chart at left shows that 72% of Americans think it is essential that the US continues to be a world leader in space exploration. Only 33% think private companies could do this without NASA.

Note that the chart on the right shows a disconnect, though, between public opinion and scientists on these key issues:

  • Safe to eat genetically modified foods (37% of the public vs 86% of scientists say yes)
  • Climate change is mostly due to human activity (50% of public vs 87% of all scientists)
  • Humans have evolved over time (65% of public vs 98% of scientists)
  • Childhood vaccination should be required (68% of public vs 86% of scientists)
  • Favor more offshore oil drilling (52% of public vs 32% of scientists)

In the case of Astrophysics, the profession creates its own wish list of big projects every ten years. This list is called the Decadal Survey.

Here are some memorable Decadal Survey proposals and outcomes:

  • 1972 Hubble Space Telescope –> 1990 Launch
  • 1982 Chandra Space Telescope –> 1999 Launch
  • 1991 Spitzer Space Telescope –> 2003 Launch
  • 2001 James Webb Space Telescope –> 2020 Planned Launch

The next big proposal in 2010 was for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) planned to launch in the 2020s. But that is now in question.

Parriott jumped to the past and talked of the Medicis sponsorship of Galileo.

Then to Vannevar Bush who was the first person to take the role of science advisor under President Franklin Roosevelt. Vannevar Bush was the first to push for non-military science funding by the Federal Government. He proposed the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

This graph shows the bump that science funding received during the Apollo moon race and how it declined afterwards

The US remains the world leader in Research and Development (R&D) funding. But China’s funding is soaring and soon will surpass us as this graph shows

When the recession hit the US in 2008 while W Bush was president, there was a rush to propose a stimulus package. The Bush package was mostly adopted by the new Obama administration. The emphasis was largely on tax cuts rather than on major investing.

This crisis was an opportunity that last came 70 years earlier during the Great Depression in the 1930s. President Roosevelt had the visionary idea to use Federal money to invest in a wide range of projects. Obama, not so much. There was some spending on “shovel ready” projects, but no new initiatives that would continue in the longer term. Instead, President Obama emphasized “fiscal responsibility”.

Obama offered a traditional conservative line that “fiscal responsibility” means paying down the debt. Rather than using Federal money to invest in projects that would have a longer term return on that investment. It was truly a lost opportunity that may not come for generations, if ever again.

In some fairness to Obama, Dr Parriott presented this graph of historical debt in the US

But that graph fails to show how much the debt is due to spending and investing versus how much is due to tax cuts for those at the upper end of income. President Reagan was famous for dramatically increasing military spending and for running up huge deficits. But it is not as widely known that those deficits were due more to tax cuts for high income people than they were due to military spending.

Dr Parriott showed some graphs and charts intended to illustrate the tradeoff between reduced spending vs increased taxation

But his main point was how absurd it is to look to science spending as a way to cut the budget. He showed this pie chart illustrating the tiny sliver represented by non-military R&D compared with the entire Federal budget

He showed how R&D spending historically is pretty much tied to overall “discretionary” spending in the Federal budget

Dr Parriott took care never to reveal his partisan leanings. However, I might guess that he is a Republican based on a few clues. For one thing, he took his government post during the W Bush administration. He referred to the “Democrat” party when it is in fact the “Democratic” party. More important, that pie chart lumps together very different kinds of “government” spending in a way favored by Republicans.

In particular, he includes Medicare and Social Security in the overall Federal Budget. In fact, these are funded through their own mechanisms and do not directly impact overall taxes or deficits. If these programs are removed it becomes clear that R&D is competing mostly with military spending. As at least two audience members pointed out.

Then Dr Parriott talked about what happened when Trump became president. He noted that he was 26 minutes into his talk before mentioning Trump! Trump proposed budgets that would wreak havoc on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation, Interior and more

This came at the same time Trump was waging an assault on science and the environment that went far beyond budgets. In the case of climate science he tried to purge government web sites of climate data.  Climate scientists rushed to protect the data from being destroyed and lost completely. Trump also tried to stop scientists at the EPA and other agencies from communicating with the  public.

As a result, scientists organized in a way never seen before: The “March for Science” happened in cities all across the country

Here are my photos and videos of the vast March For Science events held in Santa Barbara last year.

The main thrust of Dr Parriott’s talk came at this point and it was a bit of a surprise: Congress weighed in and they asserted their power under the Constitution at least when it came to the science budget

Dr Parriott noted that Congress is heavily loaded with lawyers, career politicians and business people. With just a smattering of other professions.

Yet he claimed that Congress pushed back against Trump’s budget proposal when it came to science. He claimed that the Republicans in Congress are not as anti-science as Trump. He noted two particular Republicans who are strongly pro-science.

Lamar Alexander: “It is hard to think of a major technological invention since World War II that didn’t have some support from government-sponsored research.”

And he said that John Culberson of Texas is a huge fan of looking for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Dr Parriott said Culberson is hoping that discovering life there would be a boost to future NASA budgets.

The result of this tension between Trump and Congress has been a “roller coaster” ride regarding the budget

Agencies under threat of cuts have to plan as if they are going to be cut. At the same time, they have to draw up alternative budgets in case they do get funding. In the case of the most recent budget, many science agencies did not know their actual budget until the fiscal year was almost over!

Dr Parriott noted this is a very inefficient way to run any organization. Not to mention the difficulty of long term planning which is nearly impossible this way.

He did offer one ray of light coming from Trump: He finally selected a science advisor Dr. Kelvin K. Droegemeier who actually believes in climate change! He is a meteorologist, no less! He is the first non-physicist to be presidential science advisor.

One audience member asked Dr Parriott about Trump’s proposed “Space Force”.

Dr Parriott said the Air Force already deals with the issues Trump is talking about. And therefore the Air Force is very unhappy with the proposal. It does not seem to be tied to any needs or plans initiated by the US security agencies.

I noted that China is heavily investing in sustainable energy. While Trump has cut what little incentives and funding exist for sustainable energy in the US. It would seem that Trump is setting us up to fall behind.

My question: Does the budget process include any rational evaluation of return on investment for such investments?

Dr Parriott did not hesitate an instant before answering: “No.” In fact, there is no policy concept at all behind Federal science budget proposals!

In a word, budgets are based on one thing: “Inertia”!

Items make their way into the budget by lobbying. Once in the budget, they generally stay into the next budget, just being tweaked up and down by a certain percentage. He sees no sign this will change.

In short, it seems that science policy and funding are not going to be much worse than what came before Trump. But what came before Trump had little coherence, either.

When I was a college student at MIT in the 1970s I was very aware of the global crises we faced as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels. I attended a major conference hosted at MIT on the subject. Some of the top minds in the world had been convened on energy policy. The conference was supposed to offer a path to a sustainable future. I was shocked when one of the major presentations at the end offered this “solution”: Somehow, we will “muddle through”.

I was just a student and I wondered if there are any adults in charge. Now I am an adult and I have the same concern.


Written by sbrobert

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