By Faye Flam
When it comes to science, the Trump campaign’s most notable statement so far may have come from space policy adviser Robert Walker, who last month told The Guardian that he expects cuts, if not an outright end, to new environmental-science research at NASA. “Mr. Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science,” he said.
Walker, a former congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, also referred to NASA’s earth science program as “politically correct environmental monitoring.” Space News quoted him at an FAA meeting saying that Trump would focus on “deep space achievements,” which he apparently deems not PC, and move NASA’s earth science missions to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
If Trump’s people think earth science is too PC because it keeps flagging environmental problems, they won’t escape in deep space. Past missions have observed climates of other planets and brought us warnings about climate change on Earth, as well as information on acid rain and ozone depletion. People use the same atmospheric physics to study Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Earth — they don’t switch to a politically correct version for our planet.
Walker is right that NASA funding should be based on merit and not politics. But where is his evidence that there’s any lack of merit in NASA’s earth sciences division? Those scientists are responsible for satellites that gather data not just on global temperatures but changes in land surface and oceans, as well as fires, storms and other natural disasters. Since Earth is the only planet known to harbor life, NASA’s selfies have also been useful for researchers trying to identify signs of life in the universe.
Some of this research is politicized. So is the idea that humans evolved from other primates, but evolution is also the cornerstone of modern biology and pretty darned solid. It’s true that in some circles, people with no scientific credentials will vilify others for questioning climate change. At the same time, there’s an overwhelming scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels has changed the atmosphere in a consequential and dangerous way.
When areas of science become politicized, it can erode trust in scientists. As Yale professor Dan Kahan explained in this column, studies show political affiliation has a major influence on whether people trust scientists on climate change, evolution and nuclear power. These prejudices shouldn’t affect science funding.
The right way keep politics from contaminating science is to make sure that funding that goes to popular causes or ribbon-carrying diseases isn’t siphoned away from other equally or more deserving fields of scientific inquiry. Sometimes the best, most enlightening, most useful science doesn’t have an obvious application at the outset. That’s the kind of science that can suffer when politics leads funding decisions.
Most of the basic facts of climate change were discovered by people trying to answer questions with no obvious practical applications. The discovery of greenhouse gas warming, for example, goes back to French physicist Joseph Fourier, who in 1824 calculated that the Earth should be permanently frozen, given its distance millions of miles from the sun. His curiosity led him to hypothesize that the atmosphere was keeping us warm. In 1864, Anglo-Irish physicist John Tyndall put the idea to the test, shining light through different gases and showing that oxygen and nitrogen had no warming effect, but carbon dioxide did. Later in the 19th century, scientists started to realize that burning fossil fuels could raise the global temperature — though some thought it might be a good thing.
In the late 20th century, scientists were able to refine their understanding of atmospheric physics by studying Venus, with its extreme greenhouse warming and 864-degree surface temperature, and Mars, with its meager atmosphere and frigid surface.
“A lot of what we know about other planets came from applying earth-science techniques, and a lot of what we know about Earth came from studying other planets,” said planetary scientist David Grinspoon, who has written a book about Venus and, more recently, a book about our planet, “Earth in Human Hands.” Scientists used our neighboring planets to improve their climate models, he said, predicting temperatures that were later measured directly.
While NASA does have bureaucratic divisions between earth science, planetary science, solar physics and astrophysics, he said, “those of us doing the science are very aware these distinctions are artificial.”
From Apollo 17’s iconic images of Earth to Voyager’s “pale blue dot” snapped at 4 billion miles away, many space missions have looked back to photograph and study Earth. NASA’s recent emphasis on the search for life has depended on images of Earth to understand what to look for not just in our own solar system but among the hundreds of planets known to be orbiting other stars. “They’re looking for biosignatures of life in Earth’s atmospheric chemistry,” said Grinspoon. “If we weren’t doing that, we wouldn’t have a clue about exploring other planets and searching for signs of life.”
Walker is not part of Trump’s transition team, and it’s unclear whether he’ll have any future role at NASA. But he has Trump’s ear, and his statements reflect a pervasive misconception that science loses soundness if it becomes politicized. It doesn’t.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg View columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.