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14 December 2012

A Congressional pledge for science? Respect could only help

In the face of recent comments by lawmakers and others in the public eye suggesting that accepting scientific evidence is akin to the decision to believe in a particular religion or political dogma, NPR commentator Adam Frank has suggested a clarifying solution.

Congress, he said in a Cosmos & Culture post on 11 December, should consider making a pledge to science -- not to wholesale acceptance of all published research, but simply to “uphold the integrity of basic scientific research and take no actions to undermine the broadest public education in empirically verifiable scientific truths."

Volunteers from SPIE are among hundreds
of scientists and engineers who visit
Congressional offices every year to stress
the contributions of STEM research to
society and the economy.

His underlying point that science and technology are “the engines of our economic competitiveness” echoes the words of leaders of 120 science, engineering, and STEM education organizations in a letter last week to Congress and President Obama urging them to avoid the “fiscal cliff” deadline. If policymakers are unable to work out a solution by the end of the year, blunt budget cuts will accelerate a trend toward decline in U.S. research and R&D funding.

The problem with that is that technology R&D is a major force in building the economy and creating new, highly skilled jobs. And besides spawning the Global Positioning System, the laser, and the Internet, technology has enabled countless medical advances that have helped save the lives of millions of heart disease, cancer and diabetes patients, among others. Almost every national priority -- from health and defense, to agriculture and conservation -- relies on science and engineering.

In short, cutting the funding cuts the flow of progress.

As SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs noted, while financial problems are in a dire state, “It would be utterly foolish to damage the best hope for economic health: our science and technology capability."

Solar panels provide clean energy in
remote places. United Nations
Development Programme. UN photo.

Adam Frank puts it this way: “Standing up for science should be a no-brainer for us. We are a nation that has shown, many times, how much we value the endless possibilities flowing from the pursuit of knowledge, not the least of which include a lasting peace and a generous prosperity for everyone.”

“Standing up for science” doesn’t require a formal pledge on the part of policymakers, although it is an intriguing idea. But basic respect for responsible science and technology is crucial. With that respect comes support for many vital needs. For example:
  • Improving healthcare capabilities, such as detecting cancer earlier and increasing the odds of patient survival
  • Retaining the most highly skilled workforce rather than sending graduates out of the country as soon as they complete their degrees
  • Creating new highly skilled jobs in manufacturing and engineering
  • Developing energy production that will meet the needs of the future without creating new damage to the environment, or exacerbating existing pollution and global warming
  • Ensuring safe communities
  • Improving storm- and flood-monitoring capabilities
  • Bringing new-generation lighting systems and communications networks to developing areas, improving health and educational prospects
  • Ensuring food safety and adequate clean water around the world.
That's all worth standing up for.

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