By: Bethanie Morrison, Ph.D
With the Grand Old Party (GOP), or the Republican Party, taking over the U.S. Congress in 2015, some members of the science community are “facepalming” as they prepare to become subject to a congressional majority who is said to be “anti-science” and therefore restrictive on federal funding for research. The anti-science perception of the GOP is characterized by their perceived disbelief in certain scientific claims that the vast majority of scientists have reached a consensus on, such as man-made global warming and human evolution. The question that I have is, what makes questioning the general consensus and advocating restraint on federal spending “anti-science?”
Often times, it’s the loudest voices in the GOP that express the disbelief. However incorrect their views may or may not be, is the simple act of disagreeing with the scientific majority something that should be considered “anti-science?” Author Lee Harris wrote in The American, “Belief in the infallibility of the latest scientific consensus may be useful in the process of learning about science when we are children, but the history of science teaches us that the scientific consensus of today is no more immune to future scientific revolutions than the scientific consensus of the past. To label as anti-science anyone who is skeptical of the current scientific consensus may be a clever political stunt, but it betrays a hopelessly naïve idea of the nature of science. The real enemy of science is not the skeptic, but the true believer.” In his article, Harris made the excellent point that some of the greatest scientific findings in history went against the majority. Think about it. Darwin. Kepler. Copernicus! These men all went against the accepted “norm” of the times, and we would not have the knowledge that we have today without them having gone rogue. Therefore, just because certain Republicans pay attention to the few lonely, but hard-working and intelligent scientists that disagree with the accepted scientific paradigms, does not make them “anti-science.”
There are other facts that must be taken into consideration before making a blanket statement such as: “Republicans are anti-science.” First, mainstream Republicans should not necessarily be confused with the very vocal and ultra-conservative Tea Party, which for now is under the Republican flag. Data from a study published in Environmental Politics examining the environmental concerns of 4 U.S. political parties shows that, “In particular, members of the Tea Party are less likely than the rest of the GOP to accept human evolution and trust scientists for information on climate change.” Does this finding make the Tea Party “anti-science?” It makes them skeptics, and that is all that can be said. Being skeptical is a hallmark of a good scientist! While the Tea Party may be skeptical of evolution and climate change, the Republican party as a whole should not be labeled “anti-science” because of a few very loud skeptics with what can be seen as a different political agenda.
Secondly, Republicans have been in favor of increased research funding in the past and are not specifically against it today. In a 2003 policy update written by the NIH Office of Legislative Policy and Analysis, “The effort to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget began as a movement among Senate Republicans and has had bipartisan support in both the House and Senate since the first session of the 105th Congress. Based on the substantial increases provided to NIH in fiscal years (FYs) 1999 through 2002, the effort created a climate supportive of the move to double the NIH budget to a level of $27.221 billion by 2003, and has been responsible for the increases provided in the appropriation measures for NIH.” In a nutshell, this is pointing out that Republicans were responsible for the initial doubling of the NIH budget more than a decade ago.
Currently, up for debate in Congress is the reauthorization of America COMPETES, a bill originally signed by Republican President George W. Bush and later reauthorized by President Obama. This act aims to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States. The current GOP has introduced their own version of COMPETES, called the FIRST act, which aims to streamline federal investments at federally funded organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by funding research and development (R&D) to address national needs. The bill has become controversial among scientists because many believe it dictates which research these organization should fund. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a major backer of this bill and Chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, has stated: “…NSF has misused taxpayer dollars and funded too many questionable research grants – money that could have gone to higher priorities. For example, how does the federal government justify spending over $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic? Or $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru from 1600 – 1700? We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on higher priorities. In a time of constrained federal spending, the FIRST Act protects NSF’s budget in order to keep America on the cutting edge of science.” As a result, under the FIRST act, these federally funded organizations will simply be held more accountable for grants being funded using taxpayer money.
Some scientists say that this regulation will hinder possible groundbreaking, yet obscure, research. “Opponents in the scientific world and their political allies believe that, at its heart, the GOP assault isn’t about bringing greater accountability to the EPA or NSF, but rather a larger lack of trust in science that could soon spur efforts to micromanage NIH, the Department of Defense and other agencies that, all told, spend tens of billions on scientific research every year,” says Maggie Severns, an education reporter for Politico. The perceived “lack of trust” in science likely stemming from the GOP’s view that research money is being wasted on useless scientific endeavors. On the other hand, no one would expect a privately funded organization to fund research that does not have the promise of meeting a goal of the organization. For example, a privately funded breast cancer organization would not fund research on worm development unless the scientists could tie the findings of worm development directly to human breast cancer. Why should the government be different? Why, if they are the entity funding the research, should they not have a say in what research will benefit their constituents more than other research?
This being said, the original COMPETES act has support from new Republican leaders: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the current ranking member of the Appropriation subcommittee that controls the budgets of the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers; Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the current ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The support of these major Republican players may tip the scales in favor of the reauthorization of the COMPETES act, and would be an example of a bipartisan relationship between Congress and President Obama with regard to science and technology.
In summary, the Republican party, commonly deemed as “anti-science,” has done nothing to warrant such a title. They have been in favor of funding federal research programs all along. These funding mechanisms do come with some guidelines, but they have not said that science relevant to our particular population should not be studied or funded. Instead of simply not reauthorizing the Democrat-supported COMPETES act, they have offered up a suggestion for alternative funding in the FIRST act. There is leadership in place that will ensure one of these bills gets passed and federally funded science will continue. Finally, as scientists ourselves, we should always take a look at all sides of an argument, not just the most popular one. Would you consider yourself to be “anti-science” if you were to disagree with some popular findings? Probably not. You would consider yourself to be a critical thinker and good scientist. Therefore, we should be willing to extend the same courtesy to the Republicans and discontinue the use of the term “anti-science” when describing the 114th U.S. Congress.