On watching my country go crazy – and why science is important

Like much of the rest of America (and the world) I have been watching US shutdown theatre in horror. I posted a few years ago about how I didn’t think the Tea Party was the end of Democracy as we know it, boy was I wrong. Hopefully not totally wrong, the US (really) does have a way of righting itself after it drifts into crazy, in the end.

This nightmare shutdown – has happened before – in the 70s it was four times, three when Jimmy Carter was president and once with Ford. I am old enough (just) to remember these shutdowns and I definitely remember what it did to scientific research. Cuts, cuts and more cuts and some of it damaged entire fields or research irreparably for at least 40 years. There was an OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s in the US, I remember the lines (queues) largely because I was a bored 6 year old sitting in a car.

OPEC_gascrisis

As a result of this oil crisis, the US embarked on an educational Energy Saving campaign and started pumping research-money into research for fossil-fuel alternatives – wind, solar, nuclear, bio-fuels even the dreaded gasohol – a very bad idea.

After a series of similar shutdowns, and of course Reagan being elected, bye bye alternative energy research. Nuclear reactor research in the 70s and 80s was pretty much entirely halted. Money was yanked from bio-fuel research. Why? Because the USA struck a deal, oil was cheap (and it is still the best bang for your buck in running you car) and decided not to worry about it. Or rather the government decided not to worry about it. Ronald Reagan famously took down the solar panels Jimmy Carter had put up on the White House. Obama has since put them back up – 20 years later!

And that is kind of the point. 20 years later, here we are again. Gas prices have gone up in the last 5 years in the US (yes i know they are higher in Britain but Britain has MUCH more available public transport) and they are just going to keep rising. And, eventually, the oil will run out. And those last 40 years where there was no funding for energy-related doing basic research? They are gone. More worryingly all of the expertise which was being built up in the 70s – is also gone.

These things are important, they affect EVERYONE. Not just scientists, everyone. Not just Americans everyone.

It’s time for the US to right itself and stop following the usual pattern of shutdowns and subsequent death by 1000 budget-cuts. Go ahead Congress – especially you Tea-Partiers, put those solar panels up on your house and do the right thing.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @girlinterruptin
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One Response to On watching my country go crazy – and why science is important

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I feel absolutely terrible for US scientists (and all furloughed government staff, and everyone else affected). We’re feeling some effects here in Canada – a PI and I just busted a gut and worked over a long weekend to complete two NIH grants that we now can’t submit (we had to meet the original deadline in case the NIH re-opened at short notice), and because an NIH staffer was coordinating abstract submissions for a conference I’m going to in Germany in November, we’re all in limbo and don’t know if we should be making posters / preparing talks or not). But ultimately, whole labs and programmes aren’t at risk the way they are in the US. There must be a LOT of lost sleep down there right now – it puts some of our problems with the anti-science Canadian government in perspective, I can tell ya