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The war on science takes a turn

My friend Chris Mooney wrote a terrific book several years ago, "The Republican War on Science," and I'm wondering now whether it's due for a new installment.

Just in recent months we've seen a GOP member of the House Science Committee describe cosmology, biology, and geology as being, quite literally, "lies straight from the pit of Hell." We've seen Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) boast, "I'm not a scientist, man." We've seen Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) endorse creationism lessons in public school science classes.

And it's getting worse. The Huffington Postreported yesterday that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and other Republicans on the House Science Committee "are making an unprecedented move to require oversight of the scientific research process, pushing a bill that would in effect politicize decisions made by the National Science Foundation."

It's against this backdrop that President Obama, a week after hosting the White House Science Fair, spoke yesterday at the National Academy of Sciences, in celebration of the NAS's 150th anniversary. The video of the president's remarks is above.

There were a couple of angles to the president's remarks that struck me as interesting.

First, as hostility towards science from the right appears to be intensifying, it's reassuring to see a president celebrate scientific achievements and the promise of scientific progress.

"We, too, face significant challenges -- obviously not of the magnitude that President Lincoln faced, but we've got severe economic and security and environmental challenges. And what we know from our past is that the investments we make today are bound to pay off many times over in the years to come.

"So we will continue to pursue advances in science and engineering, in infrastructure and innovation, in education and environmental protection -- especially science-based initiatives to help us minimize and adapt to global threats like climate change.

"And I'm confident we'll meet that task because we've got you -- brilliant and committed scientists to help us guide the way.... For 150 years, you've strived to answer big questions, solve tough problems, not for yourselves but for the benefit of the nation. And that legacy has endured from the Academy's founding days. And when you look at our history, you've stepped up at times of enormous need and, in some cases, great peril."

Second, I was struck by Obama's reminder that the sequester isn't just punishing the poor; sequestration is hurting science, too.

"[R]ight now, we're on the brink of amazing breakthroughs that have the chance, the potential to change life for the better -- which is why we can't afford to gut these investments in science and technology. Unfortunately, that's what we're facing right now. Because of the across-the-board cuts that Congress put in place -- the sequester, as it's known in Washington-speak -- it's hitting our scientific research. Instead of racing ahead on the next cutting-edge discovery, our scientists are left wondering if they'll get to start any new projects, any new research projects at all over the next few years, which means that we could lose a year, two years of scientific research as a practical matter because of misguided priorities here in this town."

I've got an idea. Perhaps if we shifted laboratories onto airport runways, and researchers started delaying flights, Congress would leap into action again?

For the record, in his new budget plan, Obama proposed increasing spending on science and research by about $143 billion. Instead, thanks to the sequestration cuts Republicans are so fond of, research has been left in indefinite limbo.