Eating Our Seed Corn

“Science has always been at the heart of America’s progress. Science cleaned up our air and water, conquered polio and invented jet airplanes. Science gave us the Internet, puts food on our tables and helps us avoid pandemics. Science and technology are widely considered by economists to be responsible for at least half of American economic growth since World War II. Defunding science is the intellectual equivalent of eating our seed corn.” Denis Hayes, LA Times editorial.

Knowledge based, rational public policies are good for everyone. It is good for the economy. It is good for business. Massive cuts in science, technology, and education are not in anyone’s best interest. The wisdom of public investments in these areas has been demonstrated by past experience. The failure to invest, or to act on the knowledge based advice, has often been a mistake.

In the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Hayes, former head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, provides an excellent example. President Carter advocated funding research in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy possibilities. He set a national goal of getting 20% of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2000. Carter famously had solar panels installed on the White House. Given the oil supply crises of 1973 and 1979, this was an obviously reasonable course of action.

But President Reagan, for political reasons, slashed the solar research staff by 40%, reduced its budget by 80%, and abruptly terminated over 1000 university research contracts. Symbolically Reagan had the solar panels removed from the White House! In the 1970’s the U.S. had more solar patents and made more solar panels than the rest of the world combined. But the Reagan cuts drove many researchers into other fields and severely hurt renewable energy development.

Although the industry eventually recovered, the U.S. lost its leadership position. Many years of delay hurt the environment and the economy. Nearly all solar panels are now being developed and manufactured abroad. The U.S. makes just 5% of the world’s solar panels. Denmark leads the world in wind power. Even though U.S. production of renewable energy has increased by more than 300 percent in the past decade, the U.S. still lags far behind Europe and some third world countries in use of renewable energy. Renewable electricity is only about 13% of the U.S. total. By contrast, Costa Rica is now producing 98% of its electricity from renewable sources.

The current administration’s cuts to science will repeat the Reagan era mistakes. Putting obstacles in the way of basic research, educating new scientists, or attracting foreign talent (think travel bans and immigration restrictions) can only harm innovation. Innovation fuels the economy and provides possible solutions to difficult problems. “Eating our seed corn” is not good strategy.

Necessary government action does work. The Environmental Protection Agency, created during Nixon’s presidency, has cleaned up much of the blatant pollution of our air and water. Because of the outlawing of chlorofluorocarbons, depletion of the essential ozone layer has being slowed down. Banning DDT has restored bald eagle and other raptor populations. Contrary to the reactionary opposition’s talking point, the economy did not crash from these regulatory “burdens.”

Science is not perfect and experts are not infallible. What we know, or think we know, can be questioned. Best practices change over time as new information becomes available. But these positions must be supported by facts that are reviewed and supported by accepted methodology.

The current administration doesn’t understand or doesn’t care. Democracy Now reports they are rejecting the findings of government scientists that pesticides called organophosphates threaten human health. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked even small amounts of these chemicals to low birth weight and brain damage in children. But last month, EPA chief Scott Pruitt overturned a ban on one of the pesticides produced by Dow Chemical. Dow Chemical paid $1 million to underwrite Donald Trump’s January inauguration, and Dow’s CEO Andrew Liveris heads up a White House manufacturing advisory group.

Denying science is recipe for disaster. Political ideology, or political connections, should not trump scientific fact. Cutting science and science education is shortsighted. We should not eat seed corn. Neither should we let rats get into the corn crib.