The scene yesterday? A Senate confirmation hearing for a panel of presidential appointees. The hopefuls numbered four all together, but two — a NOAA nominee and a nominee for the Marine Mammals Commission – drew questions of particular significance.
What made the questions interesting? Four things, really.
First, the issues came from both sides of the aisle: from the committee chair, a Democrat; and from the ranking Republican. There was partisanship in the air…but partisanship under control.
Second, although the questions and their framing contained the inevitable political twist and a kernel of self interest, they also surfaced very real national concerns. Queries at these hearings are designed to remind the nominees that the Senate power of advice and consent is very real, and that Senate power more broadly extends far beyond the confirmation process. This power was on full display, but so was the Senate disquiet about some truly sobering challenges.
Third, the subjects were real stumpers. Sometimes, the questions at these hearings brook no real answers because the nominees aren’t yet incumbents. They’re too vulnerable; they have too much to lose by being forthright. They’re forced to dissemble. But these questions were different. No one, whether scientist or policy official, academic or business leader, knows the answers. [Read below – you’ll see this for yourself.]
And fourth, the discussion, taken as a whole, hinted that the nation is under-investing in NOAA and other Earth-science and science-based service agencies [broadly construed, and including USDA, Interior, Energy, NSF, NASA, EPA, DoD and many others within the so-called “discretionary-spending” sector of government].
Want some examples? Here are three. Apologies for the phrasing; these are in no way quotes. But you can get the drift.
1. A number of marine mammals were washed ashore, dead, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this past year. How can we balance the nation’s need to protect the environment and ecosystems with its need for energy and other natural resources?
Did the nominee have an answer? Sure. Do you have your own opinion? Chances are good that you do. But so do nearly 300 million other Americans. And our views, however certain we may be, are often deeply contradictory. The simple fact is: our science is not good enough to assign value to the costs and benefits associated with either the environmental protection or the resource extraction (and each contains a dimension of both). The full discussion involves cultural values that differ across our geographically, ethnically, and economically diverse society. We are only scratching the surface of these and many similar issues, even as the pace of events and the magnitudes of our decisions are picking up speed and consequence. The result? We’re guessing. We’re acting on hunches. We’re moving on to the next brush fire and hoping we’ll be lucky.
2. We know that the NOAA polar-orbiting satellite program is in trouble: underfunded and behind schedule. And yet NOAA (and both Republican and Democratic administrations) have found it difficult to be open about the problems as they’ve come up over the past ten years. This year, the House and the Senate budget figures are miles apart. But they don’t bracket what’s needed. They’re both short of sufficient funding. The issue will have to be reconciled between the two chambers. But in the present political environment, compromise is frowned upon. In fact, any attempt at compromise is actively punished. And compromise won’t do. Worse yet, there are scores of competing needs for more funding across all of government. And to top it all off, with fifteen trillion dollars in federal debt, the money just isn’t there. What’s your advice? What will you do once you’re in office?
That’s a long question, you say. Not really, not for the Senate! This was brief, and pointed. And again, defies a real solution. The best anyone can do is promise to do his/her best.
3. You know, with all this bad weather we’re having, we ought to be doing more to look into weather modification. In lots of places around the country, we need more rain, and with all the damage hurricanes are doing along our coasts, maybe we should even think about moderating their intensity a bit. At the very least, we ought to make more of an effort to collect, retain, and provide access to data that could help us investigate these possibilities. I’ve been trying for years to get NOAA to pay attention to this. What will you do once you take office?
Ouch. On so many levels. The science? Way short of where it needs to be. And the policy stakes? Imagine attempting to weaken a hurricane, and discovering that despite or because of these efforts (because that’s how great the uncertainties are here) that the storm intensifies and/or changes course and veers into another state. And the scale of societal intervention? We’re not just talking about weather modification these days. We’re contemplating geoengineering. To get the science and technology in place to know what we’re doing and to have some feel for the full consequences will take decades. Time to start building that knowledge base now.
See the need for greater investment? You bet. But we should take hope from the fact that these other momentous issues – challenges that truly matter – preoccupy our elected members of the Congress, and our appointed leaders of the administration.
And…we should all get to work!
 That is, the portion of government [unlike entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security] that we can supposedly do without.