Leaving science to the scientists


When Pope Francis addressed Congress last month he asserted that “climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation,” casting it as a moral issue rather than a political one. His comments echoed a letter about the environment released by the Vatican in June, which addressed the issue for the first time in the history of the church.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications,” he wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

Prominent Republicans were quick to criticize him, with Jeb Bush reminding us that the Pope is “not a scientist,” and Rick Santorum suggesting that “we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.” Fair enough — but will Congress actually support climate research, and what are the local impacts of their budget decisions?

One of the greatest sources of anxiety for research scientists at our local laboratories is the annual drama over the federal budget. Each year Congress is supposed to pass a budget prior to the start of the new fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1. If Congress cannot agree on a budget, the government either shuts down or a temporary “continuing resolution” is passed to keep operating with spending levels from the previous year. If the final budget includes cuts for some programs, this gives government agencies less time to implement the required changes. Most science budgets in the U.S. have been flat since 2003, which is effectively a cut when you consider rising operating costs (like health insurance premiums).

Although the federal government is now operating under a continuing resolution, congressional committees have already approved many of the appropriations bills that will eventually become the 2016 budget. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) monitors the progress of these bills each year, and keeps track of proposed federal spending on research. In a recent report, the AAAS reveals large cuts in the House budget for programs related to climate research and renewable energy. The Department of Commerce program that funds climate science at NOAA is slated for a 19 percent cut. The National Science Foundation division of geosciences, which supports research at NCAR, would be slashed by 17 percent. The Department of Energy program that includes NREL would suffer a 13 percent cut, and NASA’s earth science budget would be reduced by 6 percent.

“I find it hard to understand the rationale behind these moves,” says Tom Bogdan, former president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research that operates NCAR, and past director of the Space Weather Prediction Center at NOAA. Bogdan has been working as a researcher and science administrator in Boulder since 1983, aside from the few years he spent at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C. He suggests it isn’t unprecedented for Congress to exert such influence on specific programs deep within the agency budgets, but it has been relatively rare in the past 10-15 years. And these budget decisions have the potential to affect Colorado.

“The economic impact is large,” he says. “I think if they actually shut down a lab, that would be huge.”

A 2013 report prepared by the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder supports Bogdan’s contention that Colorado — and Boulder in particular — would suffer from significant cuts to our local laboratories. Federal research facilities in Colorado added $2.3 billion to the economy in 2012, directly employing almost 8,000 people and contributing to the creation of an additional 7,700 jobs. The report breaks down these benefits by county and by laboratory. Three of the largest contributions statewide come from labs around Boulder: NREL accounts for $815 million and more than 6,100 jobs; NCAR brings in $421 million and nearly 3,200 jobs; while NOAA provides $278 million and 2,100 jobs. Taken together, the climate science and renewable energy labs around Boulder add $1.5 billion to the local economy and support 11,400 jobs, accounting for two-thirds of the federal research dollars that flow into the state.

If the cuts proposed in the House budget become law, Boulder will certainly feel the economic impact. There is still time to influence the 2016 budget during negotiations between the House and Senate before the continuing resolution expires in December. If Republicans sincerely believe that we should “leave science to the scientists,” they will continue to support the Colorado laboratories whose research inspired the Pope to speak out on climate change in the first place.

Travis Metcalfe, Ph.D., is a researcher and science communicator based in Boulder, Colorado. Read previous columns and support the future of the Lab Notes series at labnotes.whitedwarf.org.