Esty: The Small Victories Against Anti-Climate Science

Apr 6, 2017

President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal includes spending cuts for many programs and departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation. Minority Democrats in Washington and their counterparts in state capitals around the country have been assailing the planned cuts — and celebrating small victories. For example: During a recent committee hearing, Connecticut Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty got an anti-climate science panel to agree that the country needs more science funding.

During a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing, Esty, a Democrat from Connecticut’s fifth district, said cutting science funding right now – as President Donald Trump has proposed – could affect crucial NOAA and NASA research.

So, Esty asked the panel members if they thought that the proposed cuts were a good idea.

“Dr. Curry, do you believe we should be funding more science or less scientific research in this field?” Esty said.

“Different science,” Curry said.

“Different, OK,” Esty said.

Judith Curry, President of the Climate Forecast Applications Network, agrees with most of the Trump administration’s climate claims. 

“Let’s be clear, the proposals in the so-called ‘skinny budget’ from the president would be for cutting that research,” Esty said.

“Yeah, it’s a matter of priorities. Spending more money on climate model taxonomy isn’t gonna get us anywhere. Spending more money on observing systems will,” Curry said.

”Which, which would be NASA, for example.”

“Yeah.”

“Correct.”

“Spending more money on fundamental understanding, theory regarding climate dynamics on a range of time scales; that would pay dividends.”

“And those are precisely ones that are being cut.”

When it comes to funding climate science, the panelists disagree with Esty about how to interpret and prioritize the funding. But they both agree that funding science is about funding theory, rather than securing specific answers. 

And that’s what Tiku Majumder, a physics professor and director of the Science Center at Williams College in Massachusetts, says is the most pivotal truth about science research. 

“The history of science in the last century has been the history of basic research being funded like this, with open-ended inquiry and peer review, you know, decades later leading to applications and devices and new technologies that no one could ever, you know, and that’s the basic argument that no one could ever imagine,” Majumder says.

Majumder’s research relies on federal funding from the National Science Foundation, which would also see cuts. He says funding science should be about supporting studies that use evidence to drive inquiry – and not the other way around.

“Science requires infrastructure, so funding provides the infrastructure to do the science both in terms of personnel and training students, post docs, and sort of a very important educational role for training the next generation of scientists,” Majumder says, “because that you know science wouldn’t continue to happen unless there is a next generation of scientists.”

Majumder says it also provides infrastructure for the increasingly important equipment that nearly all scientists need to use, whether it is for applied or basic sciences.

Esty says the issue isn’t who gets the funding, but rather keeping the money coming.

“At some point we have to go with consensus for the timing as we continue research, and I would say that is the prudent course – to go with consensus while continuing research,” Esty said. “That doesn’t mean stopping research; that means continuing research. And yet we cannot wait for final, ultimate truth to make decisions.”

If funding is cut 20 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent, Esty says the consequences to the global community now and in the future could be significant. 

“Our job will be to take the science and to try to make public policy decisions. Clearly there’s not total certainty here. However, if the risk is sufficiently great, we take steps even without certainty,” Esty said.

Esty and the panel did not agree on what degree of impact humans have had on the environment.