Environmental legislation: Is it time for more citizen-scientists to go to Washington?
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Environmental legislation: Is it time for more citizen-scientists to go to Washington?

Washington : DC : USA | Nov 17, 2012 at 10:36 AM PST
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US Trade Representative Ron Kirk delivers an address on America's trade policy agenda in Washington

Last June, the House Appropriations Committee approved the 2013 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill totaling $28 billion, which is a decline of $1.2 billion from the previous year. The legislation includes funding for the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Forest Service and various related agencies. The battle lines were drawn between Democrats and Republicans as the bill’s mandate limits the regulatory abilities of federal agencies and environmental protections, igniting the Democratic response.

A long list of amendments weakens environmental protections at the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, which is an attack on the Obama Administrations’ environmental agenda. The amendments are considered the broadest since Republicans took control of the House in 1995.

Forty amendments would stop the enforcement of water quality standards, abolish rules to protect streams from surface mining, reduce the budget to acquire and protect pristine forestland as well as funding to operate national parks.

Attaching restrictive provisions called riders to appropriations bills is nothing new. Democrats and Republicans do it to block presidential policies. But the number and variety of riders attached to the current Interior appropriations House bill is the broadest attack on an administration’s environmental agenda since Republicans took control of the House in 1995.

Connection between science and formulating public policy

In 2009 the climate scientist Dr. James Hansen published "Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity." In it he writes the planet is hurtling more rapidly than previously acknowledged to a climatic point of no return. The threat of human-caused climate change is recognized by scientists, but politicians have failed to connect public policy with the science. He argues that the political agenda must move forward now before it’s too late.

His theories are not without controversy, however. Hansen supports a carbon tax returned to citizens as a dividend and rejects cap and trade. He also supports nuclear power and rejects geoengineering that refers to "the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.”

Parsing out scientific theories is complicated and clearly having a scientist on any or all of the following committees in the House of Representations and the Senate could aid in the responsible and timely development of public policy.

House of Representatives Committees: Natural Resources, Education, Energy Commission, Science, Space, Technology, Finance

Senate Committees: Energy and Natural Resources, Commerce, Science & Transportation, Health, Education & Labor, Finance.

Illinois and New Jersey have a scientist in Washington

Illinois voters made the right decision in this election and sent Bill Foster, a particle physicist and businessman and Democrat to the House of Representatives from the newly drawn 11th district. Redistricting does not always work in favor of Democrats because the boundaries are not drawn by neutral commissions, but in this case The US House of Representatives received a gift from Illinois. Foster discussed his charge and commitment in an interview with Scientific American.

Foster joins another physicist, Rush Holt from New Jersey, who was elected for the first time in 1998 and has been re-elected six times including this last election cycle. Holt has sponsored a variety of legislation including The School Environment Protection Act of 2009 that decreased the use of pesticides in schools and required schools inform employees and guardians about the use of pesticides on school premises. In addition, he sponsored a bill to increase access to low income healthcare recipients for prescription drugs under Medicare and Medicaid in The Helping Seniors Choose their Medicare Drug Plan Act. In 2009 he introduced the Judicious Use of Surveillance Tools in Counterterrorism Efforts Act (Justice Act) that increased the limits on governmental power with respect to counterterrorism efforts.

Only a handful of physicists have reached the halls of Congress. Foster, a Harvard graduate, knows he is one of few in any technical field to hold national office. Foster plans to use his time in the public spotlight to serve as an advocate for bringing more of his peers to Washington.

Foster left a career in the laboratory to go to Congress, but science is still his raison d’être, and he plans to use his science background, indeed, the rigor of the scientific method in thinking through the “messy give and take that is the essence of politics.”

When asked why he left science to run for Congress, he replied that it was in his “family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activism.” His father was chemist and became dissatisfied with how his work was being used to kill people in the Vietnam War. After that experience he wanted to dedicate his life to service and wrote a lot of the language that would find its way into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

There's a fundamental question that everyone has to answer: What fraction of your life do you spend in service to your fellow man? It's not something that science helps you answer at all. It's one of these questions like, "Who are you going to marry?" Science doesn't really help you with the question.

Foster continued, “The idea of not spending a significant fraction of my life in service to my fellow man did not feel right. And one of the highest-leverage ways to do that is to get elected to an office in the United States.”

How does a scientific background help achieve political goals? “When formulating public policy it’s valuable to attach a rough number to what’s under discussion. Engineers and scientists know this instinctively, and often you’ll find that one of these arguments is quantitatively 10 or 100 times more important than all the others.”

The connection between science and formulating public policy in the US Congress can be enhanced by sending more scientists to Washington in the future. Their level of expertise and knowledge lead the way in defining the urgency of environmental policy development. Climate change is here, and it is real. It is incumbent upon the public, therefore, to recognize the value and worth of the science community when one of their own is running for office.

Resources

http://gking.harvard.edu/files/advant.pdf

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=physicist-elected-to-congress

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_congressional_committee

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rush_D._Holt,_Jr.

http://en.wikipedia.org /Storms_of_My_Grandchildren

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The threat of human-caused climate change is recognized by scientists, but politicians have failed to connect public policy with the science.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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