Vital lesson for future voters


Students need to learn the unhealthy impact of politics on science


Special to the Observer

Last week George Bush used his first veto to slow the progress of medical science. Four weeks from today I will meet my students on the first day of classes.

The connection?

Every year I use the first meeting to do the usual housekeeping chores -- passing out the syllabus, going over the rules of the road on our trip through astronomy. I also discuss the general topics that we will cover, from the nature of light to how we can study the most distant objects in the universe with that light as our only information.

I also discuss science as a human activity, its importance in daily life. I try to encourage any student without a direction to consider science as a career. It's a tough challenge given the predispositions many have when they enter college.

Once chance to reach them

More importantly, I have much more ground to cover than just the subject matter itself. Sadly, for most students, my two-semester course will be their only science class -- as in many universities, a single course is all that is required, and students' schedules are packed with other requirements. There's scant time for pure electives, and turf wars between disciplines make the every-so-often core curriculum revision end up about where it started. There is little chance of expanding the science requirement. So, forget biology, chemistry, physics, geology -- my students will only get a smattering of those topics, at the fringe where they intersect our study of the cosmos.

This means I have one shot at teaching them not only about planets and moons, stars and galaxies, but also about how we have come to understand our universe. And why it is important that we have done this and that we continue to explore the workings of the physical world about us.

Every year I also tell them that they will be responsible for making informed decisions on topics related to science. Global warming, pollution, medical controversies (like stem cell research), the challenge of declining fossil fuel reserves, the inevitable rebirth of nuclear energy. The list goes on.

Increasingly, as I age, I am telling them we have not done very well with these issues. Many will fall on their generation's shoulders. As voters they will have to turn things around, if possible.

Bush indifferent to science

What I had not realized was that some of these students would end up in places of power -- not just voters but candidates. And some of the least scientifically literate would end up elected to the highest offices.

Bush is the epitome of this. After his election I realized that we -- no, you, -- had elected the first president who I am sure is not as smart as I am. Not just in science, in just about everything.

In science he has proved to be not just indifferent, as in his continuing arguments that it is sufficient to just be "studying" global warming, but also in many areas an enemy of scientific progress. His minions have rewritten parts of scientific reports to fit his ideology. His administration has filled science advisory boards with those of his ilk in the same manner that he has handled energy advising. His mandate to make returning to the Moon a primary mission for NASA was out of left field.

In this latest maneuver he has put his religious ideals ahead of basic medical research -- derailing studies that won't necessarily be done by drug companies. Federal funds are essential for this kind of basic research, from which we derive increases in fundamental knowledge. This is the foundation for the applied studies more likely funded by commercial labs.

Such federally funded support is appropriate, since all taxpayers will eventually benefit from the work, as we have benefited from past basic research. The diseases that might be treated or cured from the results of stem-cell research affect Republicans and Democrats alike. A majority, but not quite enough, of the Senate realized that. The president did not.

Is next president listening?

What will I say about it to my class next month? I have to avoid partisan politics in the classroom, but we will discuss the impact of politics on science. It brings home the importance of why they are there in class.

I hope if I have a future Dubya in class, he or she is listening and thinking. George Bush wasn't -- he made no A's at Yale, and his only D was in science.

In astronomy.

Daniel B. Caton

Observer community columnist Daniel B. Caton is observatory director and astronomy professor at Appalachian State University. Write him at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, or by e-mail at