Cultural Vandalism in America

STONY BROOK – Whenever I hear about Islamic State militants bulldozing archaeological treasures and smashing sculptures and statues, I think about the assault on the scientific process being carried out by US politicians. Our scientific infrastructure – the principal means by which we understand the world, identify and ward off threats, and pursue a better future – is coming under attack by lawmakers who regard science as an obstacle to achieving their goals, and thus as a target that must be eliminated.

The comparison may seem over the top. Interfering with ideas, one might argue, is not in the same category as destroying precious objects, and elected officials tinkering with legislation cannot be compared to militants whose other activities include hacking off the hands and heads of innocent people. Anyone making such comparisons might seem to have fallen victim to the irrational political rhetoric that is already pervading America’s presidential election campaign.

But consider this: In 2010, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel, using advanced methods, estimated a sea-level rise that could threaten certain low-lying communities over the next century. State legislators responded by passing a bill that prohibited policymakers from using the panel’s findings, thereby undermining officials’ ability to fulfill their fundamental duty to protect their state’s coastline, resources, and citizens.

At the national level, the US House of Representatives recently passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, which would forbid the use of Department of Energy-funded research in policymaking. The language, which appears in a section on energy, was apparently inserted to protect oil and gas interests from findings about their activities’ impact on climate change. But if the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by the president, its implications would likely extend far beyond climate change, with officials unable to use any taxpayer-funded DOE research to protect US citizens.