Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where We've Been, and Where We're Going

The AAAS has a nice list of science and technology relevant legislation from the 111th congress here.  The "legislation to watch" that's been referenced is this blog is available to see there; as predicted, the majority of legislation that's been tracked here hasn't made it through.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed, and with it came significant funds for the NIH, NSF, and others.  Ultimately, the funds that were provided will be doled out by the particular institutions that fund science directly.  This blog took a look at the NIH and NSF's statements concerning allocation priorities; it seems that for the most part, projects that are already in-house are likely to receive funding.  Not much has been said about additional areas of science and technology that will be funded, and in all likelihood a highly incremental and long-term view of science in this country will be required to ascertain exactly how priorities are changing.

Nevertheless, we have seen significant emphasis on energy policy, including renewable energy.  The Waxman-Markey draft for clean energy and security contains several important provisions that were examined in detail previously.  The draft is respectable in its intention, but omits any mention of nuclear power interestingly, and relies rather heavily on problematic offsets.  Complementing this, the EPA did declare greenhouse gases to be pollutants deserving of regulation.  The extent to which these changes represent a sea change in attitude towards GHG emission reduction remains to be seen; the Waxman-Markey draft has yet to survive even preliminary debate in the house, and stands to be largely emasculated prior to passing the House.  The EPA's new policy may lead to more regulation, but any such regulation will have to contend with economic realities.  Against the backdrop of a recession (really, against the more invariable backdrop of people desiring economic growth), high carbon taxes, or punitive cap-and-trade levels are likely to remain politically untenable through the medium term.  Viability of such moves are predicated on technological advances in alternative enery production or increased scarcity of traditional fuels.  To this end, Steven Chu has recently promised more funds to develop renewable energy.

So there have been changes in the 111th congress; plenty of science legislation has been introduced, and some of it (funding for water research, for example) has passed.  Energy has been the focus of debate.  The public continues to support science, as revealed through polls, but their enthusiasm for funding science has not yet been comprehensively weighed against the economic impacts of implementing relevant policies.  The Waxman-Markey bill, when debated in full, will be instructive as to exactly where our energy policy is headed.  Other scientific agencies, such as the NSF, NIH, and NASA have been provided with additional funds, and have ambitions into the future.  The mechanics of their goals being actualized also remain to be seen, but additional baseline funding for such institutions has already increased in this administration.

The rhetoric of the energy debate remains variable, with the need for renewable energy being framed differently by different sides.  Is it a security issue or a climate issue, predominantly?  Which frame will Americans ultimately accept more readily?  At what economic cost are Americans willing to work towards alternative sources of energy?  How much basic research are Americans going to want in the future, and how much will Congress support - how much does it matter the extent to which research can be ultimately applied for economic growth?

These fundamental questions remain largely unanswered, and in spite of the incremental changes that have occured in the new Congress, there has been nothing resembling an overarching prescription for how science, society and government ought to interact.  As was pointed out earlier in this blog, the status quo indeed does appear to reconcile conflicting interests, albeit not always in a perfectly elegant way.  Competing interest groups are represented through congress; those who have more direct interests in maintaining cheap fossil fuel energy (coal states, for example) contribute to a discourse in Congress that ultimately must include these interests.  On the flip side, champions for basic research and NASA also exist in Congress, and they exist because there is public support for basic research.  The political process that is currently in place does ensure that peoples' preferences are accounted for in balance, to a degree.  

Does this system accurately weigh future harms against present costs?  Does it properly value expert opinion?  This blog does not have answers to these questions, but it is unlikely that the fundamental dynamic that interprets these complex relationships and leads to decisions that reflect them is going to change any time soon.  The future of science and technology in the United States will continue to change in its particular priorities; gradual changes in attitude from the government will undoubtedly occur, and the relationship between science and the world it studies will continue to evolve.

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