The Republican Party Isn't Really the Anti-Science Party

Conservative conflict with science on evolution and global warming has been exaggerated—while liberals get a free pass for their own failings.
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

In his first State of the Union Address in 1790, George Washington told Congress, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature.” He went on to call science “essential” to our nation. Two hundred and twenty years later, in his first inaugural address, Barack Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place.”

The president’s insinuation plays into the common perception in the media, electorate, and research community that Republicans are “anti-science.” I encountered that sentiment routinely in nearly a decade working for Republicans on Capitol Hill, and it has become more commonplace in the broader political discussion. Frequent offenders include Slate's Phil Plait, Mother Jones' Chris Mooney, HBO's Bill Maher, a host of contributors at The Huffington Post, and MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

I'm the first to admit that there are elected Republicans with a terrible understanding of science—Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, an M.D. who claims evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell” is one rather obvious example—and many more with substantial room for improvement. But Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely “anti-science” than any other demographic or political group. It’s just that “anti-science” has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse. (As a politically centrist atheist, this claim is not meant to be self-serving.)

Republicans, and members of the traditionally Republican coalition like conservatives and the religious, are criticized for rejecting two main areas of science: evolution and global warming. But even those critiques are overblown. Believing in God is not the same as rejecting science, contrary to an all-too-frequent caricature propagated by the secular community. Members of all faiths have contributed to our collective scientific understanding, and Christians from Gregor Mendel to Francis Collins have been intellectual leaders in their fields. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, wrote a New York Times bestseller reconciling his faith with his understanding of evolution and genetics.

Numerically speaking, according to Gallup, only a marginally higher percentage of Republicans reject evolution completely than do Democrats. Yes, an embarrassing half of Republicans believe the earth is only 10,000 years old—but so do more than a third of Democrats. And a slightly higher percentage of Democrats believe God was the guiding factor in evolution than Republicans.

On global warming, conservative policy positions often seem to be conflated or confused with rejection of the consensus that the planet has been warming due to human carbon emissions. The climate trend over the last several hundred years is not one anybody credible disputes—despite the impression you might get from GOP presidential primary debates. Of the many Republican members of Congress I know personally, the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming (though, embarrassingly, some still do). Even Senator Jim Inhofe, perhaps the green community’s greatest antagonist in Congress, explicitly endorses environmental regulation.

The catch: Conservatives believe many of the policies put forward to address the problem will lead to unacceptable levels of economic hardship. It's not inherently anti-scientific to oppose cap and trade or carbon taxes. What most Republicans object to are policies that unilaterally make it more expensive in the United States to produce energy, grow food, and transport people and goods but are unlikely to make much long-term difference in the world’s climate, given that other major world economies emit more carbon than the United States or have much faster growth rates of carbon emissions (China, India, Russia, and Brazil all come to mind).

The more important question on climate change is not “how do we eliminate carbon immediately?” but “how best do we secure a cleaner environment and more prosperous world for future generations?”

It is on this subject that many on the political left deeply hold some serious anti-scientific beliefs. Set aside the fact that twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe in astrology, a pseudoscientific medieval farce. Left-wing ideologues also frequently espouse an irrational fear of nuclear power, genetic modification, and industrial and agricultural chemistry—even though all of these scientific breakthroughs have enriched lives, lengthened lifespans, and produced substantial economic growth over the last century. 

Examining greenhouse-gas emissions in exact terms, three of our biggest sources of emissions are electricity generation, transportation, and agriculture. With widespread adoption of nuclear technology, we could conceivably cut out more than 70 percent of our total emissions by eliminating the pollution from burning petroleum for transportation and coal for electricity generation (Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter explains this in his slightly technical but readable Beyond Smoke and Mirrors).

Nuclear power is the only energy source that can actually meet base-load power requirements for a cost competitive KW/h price with almost zero carbon emissions. One of the largest hurdles to nuclear energy is storage of byproduct waste, something Obama dealt a huge blow when he halted the development of Yucca Mountain for what the Government Accountability Office called strictly political reasons. Republicans in Congress have repeatedly supported moving forward with Yucca Mountain.

As for agricultural emissions, the purpose of GMOs is to use less area, less energy, less pesticide, and less maintenance than conventional crops. They also mean we can grow food in new areas around the globe. With the tools to feed the world with viable crops closer to the poles, we can preserve the more biodiverse regions close to the equatorial zones.

Stewart Brand, the 1960s environmental activist, has bemoaned opposition to genetically modified organisms as “irrational, anti-scientific, and very harmful.” The anti-GMO movement, largely a product of the political left, has reached levels of delusion, paranoia and anti-intellectualism worthy of Michele Bachmann and young-earth creationists

Matters are more nuanced—or just plain favorable to Republicans—when it comes to the business of actually governing. Comparing the two parties' proposed funding levels for the major scientific research agencies doesn't lend itself well to narratives about who's “pro” or “anti” science. For every cheap shot a Republican member of Congress like Senator Tom Coburn has taken at National Science Foundation grants (see the unfairly maligned robo-squirrel), there are areas where Obama has undercut American leadership in basic science by favoring loan guarantees and industrial subsidies to the alternative-energy industry at the expense of science elsewhere.

We've seen this in his proposed cuts to high-energy physics, nuclear physics, planetary science, and other areas of research. Even in the much-maligned “Tea Party-dominated” House of Representatives, the GOP budget proposals provided more funding for the NSF than those of the Senate Democrats for the current 2013 fiscal year.

My point is not to help Republicans shed the “anti-science” label and simply apply it to the Democrats. It's more important that we collectively recognize that reason and critical thought, the joy and excitement of discovery, the connection between research and economic growth, and the beauty and awe of science are accessible to people of all religious and political stripes—just as people of all stripes are capable of rejecting them.

That's critically important for two reasons. First, one result of caricaturing Republicans as the “bad guys” on science is that the science-advocacy community gives Obama and the Democratic Party a free pass on bad decisions that undermine long-term basic research.

Take the NASA portfolio, for example, where the president unceremoniously cancelled the Constellation plan over the objections of both parties and both chambers of Congress. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, hardly partisan bomb throwers, highlighted this in testimony before the House Science Committee on multiple occasions, pleading, “now is the time to overrule this Administration's pledge to mediocrity.

Over at the Department of Energy, the president's FY13 budget request made basic research the second-lowest priority of all the department's science spending. The Office of Science, which focuses on long-term basic research, saw a meager 2.4 percent increase, while technology development and deployment—both very much not basic research—received nearly 30 percent proposed single-year increases.

In 2011, Obama denied a request to extend the operating life of the Tevatron—the nation’s most powerful particle accelerator and preeminent tool for high-energy physicists—a field of research that eventually led to revolutionary advances like MRI machines. The administration said there wasn't enough money to go around. Yet at the sametime, billions of stimulus dollars were being lost on failed investments in the alternative-energy sector. Just the failed loans to Solyndra and Abound Solar would have kept the Tevatron operating for a decade. Nonetheless, Obama has avoided mainstream criticism by hiding behind the commonly held dogma that it's Republicans who are “anti-science.”

This point briefly snuck into the 2012 presidential debates. During the foreign-policy debate, Obama offered a false choice between himself as the pro-science candidate and Mitt Romney as the anti-science candidate, claiming his opponent wouldn't invest in basic research. Romney replied, correctly, that a loan guarantee to a corporation “isn't basic research. I want to invest in research. Research is great. Providing funding to universities and think tanks is great. But investing in companies? Absolutely not.”

My own experience on Capitol Hill suggests that when anyone mentions GOP advocacy for science spending, the reply is that Republicans are hypocrites about government spending—that they only support science when it’s pork for their own district. But leaders can be consistent as advocates for basic scientific research but also deficit hawks. Federal science funding as a fraction of GDP has declined nearly 60 percent from 1967 to 2007. The growth in entitlements and mandatory spending, wasteful discretionary programs, and the unnecessary invasion of Iraq have been the leading contributors to deficit spending.

There is a second, larger reason why it's important to keep science bipartisan—and why cheap shots about Republicans and science are dangerous. The politics of the immediate will always trump the politics of the long term. So actions like the sequester, which left entitlements untouched but caused furloughs at NASA and the Office of Science, stalled research at the National Institutes of Health, and reduced grants from the NSF and other federally supported research agencies—will happen again and again absent tax and spending reform. If the sequester taught us anything, it's that science will always lose to Social Security, Medicare, and defense when budgets are being cut.

Science's political constituency is too small and the coalition supporting it is not powerful enough to protect research budgets against other priorities. Supporters of federal science funding, a group of which I am a card-carrying member, can ill afford to lose Republican support for science. But if it is perceived as a partisan litmus test, it will not continue to exist in its current state as the government's other financial obligations continue to grow. This may be stupid or petty and perhaps it ought not to matter whether or not it's perceived as a partisan issue, but I've been on the Hill and this is how politics works. 

If we do not expand the pro-science coalition, instead of shrinking it, it will be the death knell for American leadership in science. Every American will be worse off as a result. Science funding will not just shrink as a percentage—it will shrink in absolute terms, as it did under the sequester.

So if you count yourself a supporter of NASA, a supporter of the National Science Foundation, a supporter of the NIH, or a supporter of the Department of Energy's science facilities and particle accelerators, don’t be goaded into a false dichotomy between those who support science and who oppose it. As Thomas Huxley said, “Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed.”

Presented by

Mischa Fisher is a former Republican science-policy staffer and legislative director in the House of Representatives.

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