22 November 2010

The Red Wave of Anti-Science

The mid-term elections are over, and now we’re left with tattered, abandoned political posters taped to street signs and the promise of a Republican majority in the House and what seems to be Republican control of the Senate, even without a majority. It may have been a referendum on Obama’s politics or style of governance; many people cite frustration and anger as reasons for voting Republican. They say they are worried about the unemployment rate and economy, and angered that the Obama administration was too focused on passing the historic healthcare bill. At the same time, they criticize the stimulus package funding that kept the jobless rate from climbing even higher.

But as I watched the election map turn red on Tuesday night, I couldn’t avoid the sinking feeling that my own job was being threatened. And not only my job, my livelihood, and everything that I’ve worked for over the last dozen years, I think it threatens your personal health. Not just because the Republicans want to overturn “Obamacare.” The problem is the apparent disregard for science in the conservative camp. I have a Ph.D. and work as a cancer pharmacologist at major medical school. But my research and salary are paid for by Federal grants. So between the Republican distain for science, education funding, and the use of embryonic stem cells in research, the red map is truly scary.

When I began grad school, the NIH budget was in a period of increasing funding. Then under the second Bush Adminsitration, the NIH budget plateaued. In real dollars, it registered as a budget squeeze. Funding became tighter, and grants became more competitive. The average age of the first-time grant winner increased into the mid-forties. With research dollars disappearing, and education funding in decline, tenure-track positions began disappearing along with postdoctoral and grad school slots. Everyone has had to tighten their belts.

And if budgetary concerns aren’t enough, it became obvious during the Bush years that politics will trump good science. Regardless of field of research we’re engaged in – the effect has been noticed and felt by all scientists. Data from climatologists and environmental scientists has been the most obvious examples in the media. EPA, FDA, and USDA scientists have described pressure to change or suppress results that conflicted with Bush polices. And for me and many in biomedical research, there’s the stem cell issue. Stem cells open up so many possibilities in biomedical science, I can’t describe them all here.

I’m afraid that students in our schools are gorwing up scientifically illiterate. Kids are naturally curious, ready to engage the world. Without classrooms that nurture that love of experimentation and exploration, or that teach kids critical thinking, we will be looking at a dearth of invention and innovation in America. And we’ll be faced with a generation who can’t distinguish between the “theory” of intelligent design and the theory of evolution. And America will not evolve intelligently.

[Note: originally published Nov 8, 2010 @ http://bike-nyc.blogspot.com/2010/11/red-wave-of-anti-science.html]

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