Sunday, March 9, 2014

Obama's science philosophy

If you've been reading my blog for awhile now, you have probably figured out that I am pretty liberal.  I voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.  While the Democrats definitely don't have it all figured out, I think they are far better than their Republican counterparts.

But this post isn't supposed to get into the whole Elephant vs. Donkey, Red vs. Blue, Right vs. Left thing.  You can just flip back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC if you want that.  

Instead, I want to address something about President Obama that I both like and dislike at the same time.  In general, President Obama is in favor of increased funding for scientific research.  However, that being said, every year around this time, NASA and NSF (the two funding sources for my research) release information about the President's budget request to Congress.  And every year, Obama's proposed funding for space science, astronomy, planetary science (anything NASA basically) takes a hit.  It is sometimes a small cut, such as the budget remaining flat (this is still a cut because if you account for inflation, the budget actually decreases).  Other times, it has shown up as a massive 20% cut to planetary science.  

Instead, Obama has really focused on clean energy and climate change research.  Now, I applaud this.  I think it's excellent that he is trying to address this.  In some ways, I would argue that it is more important to pursue this research than the space-related sciences.  After all, we really really really need to address man-made climate change.  

However, I have a personal saying: "all sciences are equal".  What I mean by this is that in general, one shouldn't favor funding one science over another.  Why is this?  Well, the primary reason is that some of the most important discoveries ever made have been on accident.  For example, look up how Penicillin was discovered, or how the microwave oven was discovered.  By cutting science in one area, we risk losing out on potential discoveries and technologies that will change the way we live. 

Furthermore, in thinking of planetary science in particular, we have an example of the greenhouse effect, so crucial to climate change, right next door.  The planet Venus is actually warmer at its surface than Mercury, even though Mercury is closer to the Sun.  This results from Venus's thick atmosphere, primarily composed of carbon dioxide, heating the planet like a greenhouse. Sound familiar?  So, studying this world and how its atmosphere works may lead to ideas on how to handle our own greenhouse issues here on Earth. 

Venus is about the same size as Earth, but it is extremely hot
because of a run away green house gas effect from its
thick atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide. 

This is just one example.  The universe is full of amazing physical processes that do not occur here on Earth.   Who knows what their discovery could lead to?  

My primary point is that often times, you can't pick and choose what you invent or discover.  So, why cut funding to any of the sciences?  

Now, all that being said, I do understand that climate change is a very very serious threat.  So, I am not going to argue that climate research shouldn't get more money than space research.  It probably should get more.  I just think that we can't cut any of the other sciences!

Back to Obama -- I don't fully blame him.  He's had some really tough decisions to make in a tough economic climate along side an opposition Congress that seems hell bent on destroying anything that Obama does.  This is frustrating, especially since, historically, both Republicans and Democrats have been pretty pro-science (with the exclusion of the far religious right... ugh...). 

So, our nation is suffering from austerity measures that prevent significant increases in funding for science.  That, and we are faced with the threat of climate change.  So, I can see where Obama is coming from.  I just wish it were different.  This is why, every so often, I write my representatives in Congress.  After all, Congress holds the checkbook for the nation, and they ultimately control funding.  I hope everyday that we will move beyond this political gridlock and make real progress, not only in science funding, but on the vast number of issues we have to address.  I will keep hoping and I will keep doing what I can.  

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