Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Isaac Newton in Motion is Acted Upon by an Outside Force

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was chartered by King Charles II around 1660 to learn about nature, especially that benefiting the public good. The Royal Society changed science from a secretive activity of the sophisticated few to a public undertaking. The Society founded the first scientific journal which was written in English instead of Latin as papers had used before that time. Kreis (2002) describes the role of the Royal Society in expanding science “By 1700, science had become an issue of public discourse. … Science itself gave an immense boost to the general European belief in human progress…”

Asimov (1972) credits Sir Isaac Newton’s participation in the Royal Society as fulfilling the revolution begun by Galileo and bringing science into public life. Newton’s impact on natural philosophy led thinkers to find uses for science in other aspects of society. Thomas Jefferson drew extensively from this scientific world-view in formulating the Declaration of Independence whose foundation influenced the creation of the US Constitution.

But scientific thinking did not thrive everywhere. In France science initially impacted timekeeping and the monetary system, led to the development of the metric system and otherwise affected public life. The French Academy of Sciences became comparable with the Royal Society in importance. But when Napoleon came to power, he put science in its place. To him, such thinking was only good if properly controlled by select leaders.

In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush emphasized the importance of science to America’s future. He proposed putting as many as 70,000 new math and science teachers in our public schools as a part of his “America’s Competitiveness Initiative” to keep America economically viable. In last year’s State of the Union Address, he called for an initiative to colonize Mars, assuring that math, science and engineering would be national priorities for decades to come.

But as opposed to this rhetoric, real support of science has been the opposite. The Bush Administration uses the traditional tools of controlling the science agenda of the nation, e.g. funding. Like other Presidents, government funding of research matches the priorities of the Administration. Nuclear power was in under Nixon, out under Carter, in under Reagan, and so on. Tellingly, the proposed 2006 National Science Foundation budget is 35% less than Bush promised in 2002.

This Administration has also proven to be more manipulative of regulations to help its political allies than any before it. In opposition to scientific reports from its own National Park Service, Department of the Interior and EPA, the Administration has rolled back regulations to aid utilities as well as energy-related and other industries. Facing over a dozen reports confirming global warming from his own agencies, Bush simply held the position that the jury was still out.

But far more than any President before, Bush appears bent on abandoning the antiquated thinking of Newton and the Royal Society that science should be done in the open and for the public good. More Napoleonic in tone, science is only good for the public when it serves political aims. In 2004 Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Bush officials are “engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition.” Just a few examples:

EPA officials and Senators exposed the Administration’s role in suppressing information about air quality in the Ground Zero area around the World Trade Center site in 2003. Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley of the EPA reported that White House officials influenced reports that underestimated health hazards.

Last year James E. Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies revealed how his superiors tried to prevent release of NASA climate information. He was told to remove information from NASA’s web site about record warm temperatures in 2005. Other NASA scientists gave the New York Times emails from political appointees seeking to suppress scientific information. Hansen expanded his accusation this week saying that administrators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration engaged in the same practices.

Susan Wood quit August 31, 2005 as the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Women’s Health. At issue was a recommendation by an FDA advisory committee to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B contraceptive. Bush appointee, Lester Crawford, overrulled the proposal. The Government Accounting Office reported that of 68 advisory committee recommendations between 1994 and 2004, this was the only one rejected. Wood stated in an email, “I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence…has been overruled.” Wood claimed that when she asked when Crawford would act on the application she was told the “decision from above” (implying the White House) hadn’t “come down yet.”

Those 70,000 teachers might not do a lot of good if they treat science like the current Administration. Will they teach that government-sponsored research is the property of political appointees and their bosses? Will they treat science as it is now defined in Kansas (with which the President agrees): i.e., a way of understanding the natural world—unless you really, really prefer another explanation.

Perhaps the only engineering project George W. Bush has ever pulled off is Isaac Newton spinning in his grave.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home