Commentary

Big Science, Big Government

My lobby, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) isn’t located in Washington, D.C., because its employees are fond of the city’s heat and humidity in the summer. No, it is here to be close to Congress and the president, to have access to largely sympathetic media, and, by using its influence, bring home the bucks for its members.

AAAS never saw a big-government science program it didn’t like, which is logical behavior in a place where the public’s monies are chopped up, stuffed into legislative sausages, and cold-delivered to your alma mater.

Programmatic science funding goes to universities in the form of grants and contracts funding research proposals generated by the faculty. Academia has become profoundly dependent upon the “overhead” generated by such money.

For example, University of Virginia, typical of the “Public Ivy’s”, charges a fringe rate on salaries of 31% (that’s for health and life insurance, disability, institutional contributions to retirement, etc…) over a faculty member’s base salary. Then they tack on an additional 52% to that total, the overhead. So a beginning Full Professor, who probably makes around $100,000, actually requires a taxpayer outlay of over $199,000 if the feds are to pay him. Such full-time “research faculty”, paid on outside funds, are common now (I was one at UVA for 30 years).

Federal domination of science funding has two quite intended consequences: both individual scientists and major universities have become wards of Washington. For decades, academic sociologists have noted that almost all faculty party affiliations are with the Democrats. This is no conspiracy–it is merely like-minded individuals hiring other like minds and voting their best interest. Political economists would shrug at this example of “Public Choice” at work.

The Big Government bias of academic science goes back to Franklin Roosevelt, who knew that the Manhattan Project was going to be an explosive success. Before he died (and before the first ignition in New Mexico), he wrote a letter to Vannevar Bush, director of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, which oversaw building of the atomic bombs. In it he asked Bush to propose a mechanism that would employ, in the postwar years, armies of scientists in federally funded laboratories or university research projects.

Bush’s answer (to President Truman), called “Science, The Endless Frontier”, laid out the map for the creation of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and various and sundry military research facilities. Bush proposed, and Congress eventually disposed, with the federalization of science.

Inevitably the large but limited public funds disbursed to research institutes and universities would become bones of political contention, attracting courtesans, lobbyists, and consumers as only a large honeypot of dollars does. Hence the role of AAAS.

So it was not very surprising (though alarming to a naïf like me) when, in the Spring of 2007, AAAS draped the following multistory image from the Eye Street side of its headquarters located at 1200 New York Avenue in Washington:

image

The banner was unfurled precisely when the Senate was considering the 2007 energy bill, which passed, mandating the production of 36 billion barrels of ethanol by 2022. The result of all of this cheerleading is that we are projected to divert approximately 40% of this year’s corn crop to the production of this fuel, which creates more carbon dioxide in its life-cycle than gasoline.

The image was hardly neutral. Backgrounding the corncob/gasoline pump is an image of a wild blue (i.e. pollution-free) ocean. This was propaganda and public relations, not science.

In his 1961 Farewell Address, Dwight Eisenhower famously predicted the rise of a “military-industrial complex,” in which he said, “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”. He then went on to speculate as to what Vannevar Bush had wrought.

Few remember the next paragraphs, in which he said that at universities, because of the enormous cost of scientific research, “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity,” and that “we must also be alert” to the “danger that public policy itself could become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

I submit that when the scientists’ lobby hangs a multistory poster in praise of corn ethanol on its Washington building, and when our Senate passes a law that results in our nation burning up over 40% of its corn to please political factions, that we have entered a new phase in our history, where indeed rational policy–like providing cheap and abundant food for the world–has been replaced by the insanity of an unelected scientific-technological elite.

Patrick Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of our Government and our Lives.