Debating funding for geoscience and social sciences: is anyone convinced?

convince (v.)

1520s, “to overcome in argument,” from Latin convincere “to overcome decisively,” from com-, intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (see victor). – Online Etymology Dictionary

“Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge” – (quote from my ninth grade science book[1])

“I will be glad to enter a joint inquiry with [anyone] but I will not debate. We will seek the truth together.” – Dallas Willard (USC professor of philosophy, speaking in a religious context[2]).

Recent weeks have seen calls from some in Congress to reduce funding for the geoscience- and social science line items in the 2016 National Science Foundation budget (as implicit in H.R. 1806, which reauthorizes the America Competes Act). Even as the measure has been debated, growing western water shortages continue to confound agribusiness and the public. Flooding and landslides beset Colorado’s front range. The U.S. economy struggles to recover from the unusually harsh winter in the northeast. The past few days Midwesterners have been hunkering down in the face of tornadoes, while (an unusually-early) tropical storm Ana has buffeted the Carolina coast.

Seen in such light, cutting back on investments in U.S. coping strategies would seem both ill-advised and short-sighted. Unsurprisingly, continuing legislative debate lies ahead. But the argument isn’t confined to the halls of the Capitol. That’s because the culture of Washington invites all its denizens to see conflict as necessary and unavoidable. Comment is accordingly pouring in from all quarters. In particular, scientists and their professional societies are finding themselves drawn in, feeling compelled to articulate arguments in their defense.

Here’s an extended excerpt from one such letter – this one prepared by the American Meteorological Society:

“Sustained investment in all science is crucial to our societal and economic advancement. In particular, the geosciences contribute to jobs and innovation, create the foundation for our nation’s economic activity, reduce the impacts of natural hazards, support public health, and help us understand the world we live in and our connection to it. Our nation’s standing in the world today rests, in part, upon geosciences research that stretches back to our founding. The imperatives that drove our interest in the geosciences historically are still salient today, and our future success depends on extending this legacy. We urge you to continue our nation’s history of strong investments in science, including science to understand the Earth system (i.e., the geosciences). We further urge you to allow federal agencies toetermine funding priorities across scientific fields based on scientific merit. This allows funding decisions to take advantage of existing resources and capabilities, build new areas of expertise over time, and enable discoveries that require sustained investments and scientific efforts. 

The Value of Geosciences

The geosciences contribute to a strong economy, help ensure public safety, promote community and individual wellbeing, and enhance understanding of Earth as a complex and interconnected system. Our economy and national livelihood are grounded, in part, on knowledge and understanding developed through geosciences research. Our earliest investments in science reflect this. For example, the Survey of the Coast was established in 1807 to assess the navigability of harbors that are critical to trade. Historic expeditions, like those of Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike, captured the nation’s imagination and provided an initial analysis of the natural resources on which our fledgling nation was built. Since those early days, the nation’s economy has prospered, with geosciences research providing our nation with the capability for efficient extraction of natural resources, reliable weather forecasts that enable safe air travel and efficient shipping, and the provision of clean drinking water. Our future depends on continuing this legacy of scientific inquiry and research in the geosciences…”

Generally speaking, scientists and their professional societies find it hard work to fashion such statements. (For example, this AMS letter was the product of multiple  iterations of successive drafts written, edited and finally approved by the AMS Council, Executive Committee, and staff over several days.) There are many reasons behind this. The style is different from that of a journal paper. The issues are complex, yet such letter texts are generally expected to be less than 1000 words (the supposed attention span of today’s busy political leader, or executive, or high-level decision maker). Congressional decisions matter; cuts like those proposed threaten livelihoods even as they call into question the significance of scientists’ lifework. It’s therefore not only easy but also natural for scientists to be emotional about the issues[3].

In part, though, it’s because scientists are seeking to convince Congress by means of their rhetoric. They’re looking for the special logic, the compelling narrative, the vignette, all couched in some precise wording that touches hearts and changes minds – the secret sauce, the so-called “silver bullet.”

Perhaps it’s that last metaphor that’s the most telling… because the word “convince” is actually a combative, even warlike word, with connotations of “overcome,” as embodied in that element “vince” meaning “to conquer” in Latin, as in Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vince.”

Maybe that’s why scientists find the silver bullet so elusive. The reality is, as captured by that quote above from my ninth-grade science text, scientists are at their best in a common search for knowledge, for truth, for understanding. They’re not that great at contention.

In that respect, scientists might have more in common with people of faith (as captured by the second quote) than some care to admit. Both communities are most comfortable when seeking reality together – whether among themselves or with others. Neither group is that gifted when it comes to contention, though many of their individual members may often inclined to give dispute a go.

In general, however, contention is probably overrated. (To see this, just ask yourself: does contention as a technique grow more effective, or less effective, as more people adopt it?) Accordingly, it need not be the sought- or inevitable outcome of every Washington discussion. Other models are available, which I hope to discuss in the next post.

In the meantime, perhaps you recall the fable:

“The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other.

Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.”

Meteorologists ought to favor this fable, for two reasons. (1) It draws upon the power of weather; and at the same time (2) it highlights the superiority of sunnier, collaborative  approaches to discussion over mere bluster and confrontation.


[1] Apologies for the poor scholarship. I couldn’t tell you the name of that book or its author if my life depended on it. But it did profoundly influence my life, as discussed in chapter ten of my recent book, “Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet.”

[2] From page 29 of Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God, InterVarsity Press (2014)

[3]Yes, even scientists have emotions. And emotions include passion. In fact, we’re probably all better off when scientists, and for that matter when teachers and doctors and lawyers and clerks and workers on the assembly line, are passionate in a positive way about what they do. And we’re also better off when scientists acknowledge and even celebrate the passionate side of their nature. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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