Congress, scientists, and the subpoenas – stepping back from the cliff.


lincoln“…Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully…” – Abraham Lincoln (excerpt from his second inaugural address).

Abraham Lincoln was widely derided and criticized throughout his presidential tenure. All sides saw him as dithering and falling short. Failing to take the moral high ground with regard to slavery on the one hand. Interfering with states’ rights on the other. Allowing the Civil War to drag on, unable to control his generals and his Cabinet. The list was long. Only after his untimely death at the war’s end did men and women of all persuasions gain a fuller appreciation for what he had accomplished. Today his reputation continues to grow.

Were he alive today, what would Lincoln think and have to say about the present-day dust-up between the House Science Committee and NOAA? If you haven’t followed the story, the links here will lead you through the background. A House member is convinced that NOAA science has been compromised to serve partisan political purposes. This has prompted vigorous and articulate pushback from NOAA leadership and the science community more broadly. The standoff is escalating, even as it drags on. Positions are hardening. Both sides strive to sway public opinion.

Chances are good that Lincoln would see some similarities between history and the present day. Two come immediately to mind.

First, he’d note that both sides in the present argument claim the same high ground: to protect science from unwarranted political interference. In today’s fight neither faction appears to make an explicit “God-is-on-our-side” claim like that prevalent throughout the North and the South during the 1860’s. (Any need for such support seems to have fallen into disfavor.) But both make a case for the fundamental righteousness of their respective arguments. (To emphasize: virtually all of us, from whatever side we see this dispute, have no trouble finding one side’s argument absolutely compelling, and the other side’s argument totally specious. But each side is making the same claim.)

Second, Lincoln would realize that today’s fight, like yesterday’s, jeopardizes larger, transcendent interests. At the time of the Civil War, Lincoln saw as paramount the need to preserve the Union. By that measure, his words and actions succeeded. Historians tell us that prior to the Civil War, people used to say, “The United States of America are.” Since then, the language has become “The United States of America is.” Of course, we’re reminded every day that the Civil War failed to heal the terrible wound in the American soul. Slavery has been ended but bigotry and bias live on… through Reconstruction (more harsh than Lincoln had contemplated), segregation, and today’s unequal access to education, opportunity, and justice. This has given rise to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s and to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. But the fact remains, the people of the United States and arguably those of the entire world have been blessed by the fact that we have wrestled with these challenges for the past 150 years as one nation, indivisible – and not a warring, fractious aggregate of separate American states. The 20th century found the peoples of the world impressed and inspired by America’s vision for freedom, individual liberties, democracy, and equal opportunity, however flawed the execution. America became “the indispensable Nation.”

Viewed in that light, how can the import of Congress-scientist-subpoena conflict possibly compare? Quite simply, it’s because there’s a second piece to the transcendent national interest. It’s not enough that a country be free, democratic and united. Those values have to prove that they contribute to enhanced material well-being – not just for an elite few but for a people as a whole. And over the same 150 years the United States has led the world in innovation and its application for societal benefit – raising standards of living, expanding the knowledge and technology base, and then harnessing that knowledge. We have done this not just for domestic advantage but also to make a better world – to fuel the green revolution, cure diseases, grow the market economies of emerging nations, and provide a measure of geopolitical stability to a world on the edge of chaos.

Innovation and application for societal benefit? These ends require that scientists and political- and business leaders work in fullest harmony over sustained periods of years. Science alone, or policy alone, won’t get the job done[1].

No science? No economic surplus. The public and its leaders need a strong, vibrant, free science community. It’s difficult to foster creativity but easy to stifle and even kill it. Science stagnates without public and political support, and without freedom of inquiry.

But at the same time the most innovative science and technology will prove sterile unless the governing national policy framework fosters and accelerates societal uptake of new opportunities. America, at no more than 4% of the world’s population, will not long remain the indispensable Nation in the 21st century unless scientists, political leaders, and the public work together.

And… work together not just briefly or intermittently but for a sustained period of years. Here the lesson of history is sobering. Study suggests that no nation or culture has been able to maintain such innovative leadership for more than one or two centuries[2]. That precedent suggests that the United States could be at the end of its string.

The question that ought to focus minds, then, is how to walk back from the current conflict between politics and science, rebuild trust, and regain a sense of shared purpose. No one can offer a prescription. But simple awareness – taking to heart the idea that we’re all in this together, that we need each other, that the real enemies we face, ranging from ISIL and international upheaval to threats to our most cherished national values of fairness and democracy, lie elsewhere – is a start.

Lincoln himself suggests a next step forward, in that very same inaugural address. He closes this way:

“…With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Easy to parse. No room for any of us to harbor ill-will – there’s room only for respect and love. No need to yield on our sense of what’s right. That’s a bridge too far. But do move on from standing on that righteousness to the task of reconciliation and rebuilding for former friend and foe alike. Make peace and unity our aim.

Next up? making those general notions a bit more specific.


[1] The American Meteorological Society is conducting a policy study and a workshop here in Washington, DC on December 2-3. Entitled From Innovation to Societal Benefit: the way there, the workshop will focus on three U.S. challenges: How to foster innovation? How to accelerate societal uptake of innovation? How to sustain both efforts over decades? For more information or to register visit the workshop website.

[2] Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, Oxford University of Press, 368 pp, (1992).

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6 Responses to Congress, scientists, and the subpoenas – stepping back from the cliff.

  1. Pingback: Stepping back from the cliff… continued. - international internet published news

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