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
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
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.