As BP reports, 100+ years of settled knowledge has come under attack by members of the congressional Science and Technology Committee: but there are telling signs, even outside of Washington, that America is abdicating its traditional role at the forefront of scientific inquiry
The New York Times has announced that it is closing it’s nine person “Environment Desk,” which was newly established just four years ago in 2009.
Spokespersons for the Times insist that this is simply a restructuring, in line with other shifts the paper has made, and that it does not reflect a lessening commitment to the subject which has heretofore seen stellar coverage by the Times. However, industry watchers are less convinced:
Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said that while solid environmental coverage doesn’t always require a dedicated team, the Times’ decision is “worrying.”
“Dedicated teams bring strength and consistency to the task of covering environment-related issues,” she said. “It’s always a huge loss to see them dismantled … It’s not necessarily a weakening to change organizational structure, but it does seem to be a bad sign. I will be watching closely what happens next.”
And that’s not all the bad news.
One of the most important institutions of zoological study for more than a century, Chicago’s cash-strapped Field Museum of Natural History, recently announced plans to gut its natural history research program, slashing the overall budget by $5 million.
The budget cuts will be accompanied by the dissolution, on 1 January, of the 120-year-old institution’s classical academic departments – zoology, botany, geology and anthropology – and by the shuffling of member scientists into a new, leaner organization, broadly titled Science and Education.
A shock-wave from the news has been felt throughout the natural science community, and many fear similar measures may be adopted by other important institutions.
“It’s one of the great research institutions in comparative zoology, biodiversity and natural history, and it has been one of the leading centres of research for more than 100 years,” says James Hanken, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.”
Without a host institution to house and support their research, many natural scientists engaged in important work may find it impossible to continue.
“The Field Museum has some of the world’s authorities on certain insects and certain kinds of fossils,” says Hanken. “If those people no longer have a job, we in the scientific community have lost their expertise.”
Even though the President and our own Governor Shumlin promise to prioritize education, the outlook is not encouraging. Two decades of anti-intellectual politics and economic folly on Wall Street have already succeeded in undermining the foundations of ingenious curiosity in this country.
If, as it would seem, major new investment in education and pure science is realistically out of the question, I’m afraid we’ve seen the end of the golden age of American invention and discovery.