“For it’s Tommy this and Tommy that,
And ‘Chuck ’im out, the brute’
But it’s ‘Savior of ’is country’
When the guns begin to shoot.”
— Tommy, Rudyard Kipling
You know these are strange days when you wake up thinking about Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem lamenting how soldiers are scorned and belittled until a war starts, at which point they become the beloved Thin Red Line of ’Eroes.
Except in my 2020 musings, Tommy is a scientist.
If we agree on little else in the week of the coronavirus meltdown, we all want someone or some institution to step up and say, “We got this.”
That doesn’t mean President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence or any other politician.
It means a scientist.
In a perfect world, we’d get the next Jonas Salk, who in 1954 unveiled the vaccine that would end the decades-long plague of polio.
A coronavirus vaccine, alas, lies at best a year or 18 months away. So right now we’d settle for an authoritative scientist to say we’ve figured out how to carry on normally in the meantime.
Science has our faith in matters like this because science has tackled them before.
Science found the Salk vaccine. Science found a measles vaccine, a chicken pox vaccine, a shingles vaccine. Science turned tuberculosis from a national epidemic into a small problem. Science has conquered some cancers and made progress against the rest.
Science has reduced pain, from cancer and from pulled muscles. Science prevents heart attacks and saves the lives of people who have them.
Science has shown us how to clean air and water that was crippling and killing us. Science has increased food production and showed us how to use and preserve the land.
And for all its trouble, the thanks science has gotten from the present national administration is repeated budget proposals suggesting it’s not that important. Funding levels for scientific research and analysis have remained somewhat stable only because Congress, on a bipartisan basis, has maintained them.
The administration’s proposal for the coming fiscal year would cut the National Institutes of Health budget by 13% and the National Science Foundation by 12%. It would cut the Centers for Disease Control by 15%.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s climate and research program would be cut 32%, while the EPA’s science and technology division would be cut 40%. Alternate energy research? Cut by two-thirds.
The administration says it is not abandoning goals like better health, but simply eliminating cumbersome bureaucracy and regulation.
Certainly there is inefficiency in government. Nor does science always get it right. But the nature of research is that you often get your hit by learning from your misses. It took 50 years to get to the aspirin of today.
And let’s remind ourselves of this: If you’ve ever taken cough medicine, brushed your teeth or used a bar of soap, you’ve accepted science.
The Trump administration’s problem with science is that sometimes it’s just inconvenient.
Contrary to some wishful thinking, the Scopes monkey trial of 1924 didn’t settle America’s general regard for science. A significant number of Americans still believe this whole human race thing began with the divine miracle they see in the Bible, not a long march out of the swamp.
They see evolution and therefore science as a theory, something you can either believe or ignore, like tarot cards.
And then there’s the money part. Scientific consensus on matters like climate change or environmental protection often suggests policies less favorable to industries built on, say, fossil fuels and intensive land use.
If you’re an administration that loves the fossil fuel industry and developers, science can get in the way.
In 2017, the EPA’s then-Administrator Scott Pruitt saw a report that concluded existing wetlands protection produces $500 million in benefits. He ordered that it be rewritten to exclude those benefits, thus paving the way — so to speak — for dropping the protections.
Also in 2017, the EPA began replacing academics on its Science Advisory Board with members of the fossil fuel industry.
Yes, every administration stacks those decks. You win, you get to do that.
But the same administration that treats science as a luxury option right now is quite likely doing exactly what the rest of us are doing: praying for science to save our sports world, our stock market and our public life.