• Doug Neckers

Priorities

I worry about America --but for different reasons than many others do.


I worry, because at a time when we need more money spent on science, when we need, for example, more money for research into viruses, some in Washington want to cut the proposed budget for the National Science Foundation.


This is the main source for funding research in this nation. President Biden proposed a National Science Foundation (NSF) budget for next year of more than $10 billion – not nearly enough, but up from the $8.5 billion of the year before.


But the appropriations committees in both houses of Congress have slashed that to $9.5 billion, and there are those who would cut that further still, perhaps to as little as $3 billion, which would come close to destroying scientific research in our nation. This would be nearly worst thing this country could do.


With more than 750,000 of our citizens dead from the coronavirus, and the threat of other viruses very real, we need more, not less scientific research. It is true that until now, the thrust of that research has been devoted too much to weapons and not enough to medicine, and that certainly needs to change.

But our ability to meet these challenges is being threatened by some in Washington who have little understanding of science, and who owe their loyalty to a particular lobby – like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) whose heart, soul and fortune belong to the coal industry.


Coal was once the fuel that powered the industrial revolution, and the huge and hugely important German chemical companies would never have existed had it not been for lowly coal tar. But coal is a dirty and dwindling resource and an environmental hazard. Nevertheless, the coal industry isn’t ready to die.


Today, Joe Manchin is the ultimate swing vote in the U.S. Senate --and he is also a man with millions in coal stock, which provides the largest share of his income. Is it any wonder he opposes President Biden’s clean energy program?


What is more baffling is that voters in central Ohio sent Mike Carey, a Republican and coal industry lobbyist, to Congress in a special election to fill a vacancy this year. The district includes most of Columbus, where a forest of cranes has risen at Ohio State University, supposedly building its innovation centers for future discovery. How many coal barons is their new congressman going to bring to town? How many people in Columbus want more coal?


By the way, as long as I’m on my soapbox -- what’s the matter with‘Toledo voters? They narrowly voted down a bond issue for Toledo’s own imagination station. Would they prefer coal at the old plant where Promedica now stands?


Places like Imagination Station are not just fun – they help spur kids’ interest in science. In a few weeks, we will reach the second anniversary of the emergence of the worst and most lethal virus in known world history.


But even though three-quarters of a million Americans are dead, parents from Nantucket to Nevada are still complaining because their kids have to wear masks in school, and because they may now be vaccinated against its potentially lethal consequences. Many of them are the same folks who bellyached last year because their kids were home doing school work on their devices in their living rooms thanks to with online technology.


“My little Tommy absolutely needs socialization,” they said. You might have thought that keeping him alive should have been her greater priority.

They may not believe in the virus, but that doesn’t matter to Covid-19. The world has changed, and we can either acknowledge this and protect ourselves accordingly, or we can act stupid and risk death.


We scientists aren’t blameless either. Back in 2005, there was a report in the highly respected magazine that indicated a serious future pandemic might be in the offing. But our viral disease experts spent almost all their time on HIV-AIDS.

Some defend today’s science community, and extol its ability to produce multiple effective vaccines. But that took many months. I think they got caught with their pants down and society paid for the consequences.


Two years and millions of deaths later, we are just begin to vaccinate children. While I am on a roll, let me add to my list of complaints the scarcity of funding for infectious disease research in the federal budget.


Why don’t we have a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) devoted to viral diseases? Why aren’t those who run NIH out there fighting as vigorously for research on lethal diseases that are killing us as the military fight for more nuclear submarines? Somehow, the guys in uniforms always seem to beat those in white coats at the Washington money game.


Yes, I’m worried about America, and you should be too. Those who have taken charge don’t seem very smart. When we need more systems using sunshine, they are bringing us more coal. Common sense is a more important commodity.


But the United States seems have lost most of that to special interests along the way. My state capital is about to be represented by a man who is loyal to the coal industry, even as the effects of climate change are more and more obvious to us all. We need enough common sense to face the facts.


Otherwise, we may not be able to face our grandchildren.


**

Douglas C. Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. See his work at 3dscienceblog.com.


Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

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Science in 3D

With Dr. Doug Neckers

Examining the intersections of politics, medicine, and science impacting our nation