Thoughts on Public Science, Prompted by Corvid-19 and the Climate Crisis

Public science is an essential part of our democracy, but not one that is always so well appreciated or supported. This may be because we have not done that great at telling its story. But in times like these, it is important that we have a source of expertise devoted to the public welfare. There is nothing wrong with private research, but the financial interests that move it are not generally aligned with the public interest. At the very least, this affects which inquiries and projects are pursued. At the worst, it exploits public credulity for private advantage.

Now public science, especially when understood as government science, also has its vulnerabilities. If the findings of scientific agencies are suspected of being censored or fabricated by partisan administrators, then they are worse than useless. But there is no reason that this would need to be the case. We are quite capable of, and even experienced at, creating scientific bureaus with academic and editorial independence. Think here of everything from county extension to NASA, and from Fish and Wildlife to the National Institute of Health. And expecting scientists to stand up for truth in defiance of short-sighted administration is just exactly the kind of ennobling charge that they relish. It is realistic, and morale boosting, to ask this of them.

If our vision of science is limited to the invention of new gadgets, whose coming to market will transform our consumer lives, then this call will make no sense. But if we recognize that we have a public life, that we are accountable to each other for the stewardship of soils, waters and atmosphere, and that the store of knowledge is a social good, built across generations of patient inquiry, then it will make plenty of sense. We need to reinvigorate our public science bureaus, guard their reputation, and make sure they do not need to beg for corporate largess to keep their doors open.

And you should read (or re-read) Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, to reclaim the place of public science in the story of America.

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