David Baltimore and Ahmed Zewail, two eminent and Nobel Prize-winning scientists, have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today bemoaning the fact that none of the three presidential candidates accepted the invitation to participate in a “science debate” this week, and complaining in general that science is undervalued and underfunded. As is customary in this genre, they direct their complaints above all at the Bush administration. But their case is misinformed, misleading, and amazingly shallow.
First of all, they get some basic facts wrong. They claim, for instance, that there is no science advisor to the president now, but there is. They claim there is no office of science in the White House, but there is.
Second, they point to several steps taken by President Bush to better fund and support science, but then failing to acknowledge that he was the one to take those steps, accuse him of doing nothing. So, for instance, the American Competitiveness Initiative they praise was a Bush administration initiative, and a major priority of the President’s, announced in the 2006 State of the Union address. Their proposal to double the NSF budget is also a Bush proposal.
And finally, they simply assert that American science is “starved of the resources it needs,” without offering any sense of perspective or history to back up the claim. Such history might demonstrate, for instance, that the National Institutes of Health budget today is twice what it was ten years ago, and that science funding in general (in the physical and biological sciences, even excluding defense-related research) is up sharply in the Bush years. And that’s not because Bill Clinton hated science — he increased funding over his predecessors too. Every president does.
That’s not to say there are no particular causes to complain here or there. For instance NIH funding, because of its steep and rapid growth between 1998 and 2003, has had a hard time adjusting to normal growth rates since, and needs a little help to beat cost inflation. But the notion that science is ignored or underfunded is, on the whole, preposterous, and Baltimore and Zewail offer no evidence to make a particular case to the contrary.
Maybe they’re miffed that no one came to their debate, but can anyone think of more than two or three serious questions about science that would be appropriately directed to a presidential candidate? And can’t those two or three make it into the regular presidential debates?